Presidents and second terms

Written: 17 August, 2000

[This post was originally posted on Alvaro's Cafe board, in response to a Canadian who wondered why U.S. Presidents were limited to two terms, and whether "Congress and Senate" had term limits, too.]

There's no term limits for the House of Representatives and Senate. ("Congress" refers to both the House and Senate.) In 1994, the Republicans made term limits an issue in their "Contract with America." The Democrats had mostly been in control of Congress since the 1950s, and some people felt that incumbents had an unfair advantage. Since the Republicans were the minority, they hoped that term limits would force some of these long-time incumbent Democrats to retire, so that Republican candidates could stand a chance to win more seats.

But Americans like divided government, so with the Democrats controlling the Presidency now, the Dems lost Congress (as well as a lot of Governors) and the Republicans shut up about term limits as soon as they learned it might adversely effect them.

You see, the Republicans had screwed up with term limits before. Back when Harry Truman was President, Congress passed term limits on the Presidency, limiting Presidents to two consecutive four-year terms. It would not apply to Truman, however, so he could have ran again in 1952, but he decided to retire instead. (I think he might have faced some Democratic opposition that year, not sure.) The law limiting Presidents to two terms is the 22nd amendment, and it was passed on March 1, 1951.

The Democrats had controlled the Presidency since 1933, so by 1951 the Republicans had been out of the Oval Office for almost 20 years. But aside from the partisan reasons, it made some sense to limit Presidents to two terms. After all, look at FDR. When FDR ran for a fourth term in 1944, many observers could see that his health was not what it once was, but we were in the middle of a war in Europe and the Pacific, and many people may have seen FDR as the only one who could be President. One has to wonder if FDR's doctors knew that he was dying, or if those around him knew that he would not be able to complete a fourth term. In retrospect, it looks irresponsible of FDR to have run for a fourth term when he was in declining health.

On the other hand, the idea of one branch of government limiting the terms of another branch of government seems suspicious. But judging from history, it seems like a reasonable limit on a President. After all, the Presidency had become more important and powerful under FDR, too, so Congress responded by putting a time limit on that increased power.

Anyway, the 22nd amendment has so far only effected three Presidents (Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton) who presumably would have run for a third term but were prevented from doing so because of the 22nd amendment. Since two of those three Presidents were Republicans, you can see how "term limits" backfired on the Republicans.

On the other hand, it may have saved them from an endless Clinton presidency. There's no doubt whatsoever that if Clinton was allowed to run for a third term, he would eagerly do so. And he'd probably win, too, as hard as that may be for some of his foes to accept.

FDR is the only President to have won a third term, and the only President to have won a fourth term as well. (He died in office, a few months into his fourth term.) Most Presidents before FDR decided to follow the example of George Washington and limit themselves to two terms. It sets an example that the office is bigger than any person who occupies it, and tries to avoid the appearance of the country having a king or dictator type of leader. I'm sure that a dictator like Fidel Castro must feel superior since he's seen many Presidents come and go while he has clung to power, but if a U.S. President remains in power for two terms, that's quite an accomplishment, and he got that vote of confidence from a free people, so it's genuine.

Historically, second terms are usually worse than first terms. FDR's second term was worse than his first one, with accusations of packing the Supreme Court. Eisenhower's second term saw the U.S.S.R. making gains in outer space and shooting down a U.S. spy plane. Nixon's second term had Watergate, Reagan's had Iran-Contra, Clinton's had Monica. If Clinton's second term didn't have the whole Monica mess, it might have turned out better than his first term did. Ironically, Clinton had low approval ratings in the beginning of his first term, but has had high approval ratings in his second -- higher than most Presidents have had in their second terms.

I really wish I could vote for Clinton for a third term. But I'll vote for Gore.