Second-term blues

August 13
Alexander Hamilton's 1788 arguments against term limits still resonate. (Library of Congress)
Alexander Hamilton’s arguments from 1788 against term limits still resonate. (Library of Congress)

It’s no secret that President Obama is not getting much love as his second term progresses. In a recent Post op-ed, former Clinton and Obama (and Harvard) official Larry Summers suggests the checkered history of second terms itself calls out for a fix. One answer to the second-term blues is, well, to eliminate second terms. “Would the U.S. government function better,” Summers asks, “if presidents were limited to one term, perhaps of six years?”

He notes that “the record is not dispositive,” since the difficulty today’s lame-duck presidents face might only expand if they held such status from the outset. Still, he answers his question mostly with a yes: “My guess is that problems caused by lame-duck effects are much smaller than those caused by a toxic combination of hubris and exhaustion after the extraordinary effort that a president and his team must exert to achieve reelection.”

Summers’s prominence has guaranteed this proposal at least some brief attention — more than most of the 208 previously proposed constitutional amendments to this effect have garnered. (The first, according to a 2009 Congressional Research Service report, was filed back in 1826.)  A number of thoughts have emerged (see, e.g., Chris Cillizza’s interesting take on the topic over at The Fix.)  Jonathan Bernstein suggests that the empirical evidence for bad second terms is more mixed than Summers would have it. It’s true (as I traced here) that recent second terms have often brought stasis or scandals; but as Bernstein rightly notes, some of the latter have roots in first-term decisions, where Summers’s “hubris” should be less causally relevant. Matt Yglesias points out that research at the gubernatorial level, where we have something of a natural experiment given variation in state constitutions, suggests that both governors and states do better in places without term limits.

I’d also proffer the case against term limits made back at the framing of the Constitution. (Remember that the two-term limit took effect only in 1951 when the 22nd Amendment was ratified, having been passed by the Republican-controlled 80th Congress — not doing nothing! — in 1947 as belated revenge for FDR’s four electoral victories. The first president affected was Dwight Eisenhower, whom many in the GOP soon wished could run for a third term.)

A close cousin of the current proposal — a single seven-year, non-renewable term — was the working draft for most of  the Constitutional Convention. In that version, the president was chosen by Congress, so the framers worried that allowing for reelection would merely encourage the sitting president to collude with (read: buy) sufficient legislators to guarantee it. The invention of the electoral college changed this calculus by freeing the president from legislative selection. (Preventing potential corruption in the EC itself is one reason for its idiosyncratic processes: See Federalist #68).

Once presidents depended, even indirectly, on popular support, the question of re-eligibility came back to the forefront. In Federalist #72, Hamilton admitted that limits had appeal.  “Nothing appears more plausible at first sight…” he noted. But the Convention decided against them — and Hamilton went for the kill. “Nothing appears more plausible at first sight,” he said — “nor more ill-founded upon close inspection.”

Why? There are three categories of reasons. First, making the president eligible to run multiple times for office, he argues,would allow voters “to prolong the utility of [the president's] talents and virtues.”  One should not limit voters’ choices without good reason.

Second, experience is a good thing (it “is the parent of wisdom”), and stability itself has virtues (recall the Federalists’ general concerns about “mutability” more broadly.) In some cases, the nation might be deprived of a key individual’s competence during a national emergency. Indeed, even “without supposing the personal essentiality of the man,” the timing of the substitution of inexperience for experience could easily be problematic.

Third, Hamilton considered how presidents — and their political interlocutors — would behave. How to keep our leaders concerned with the national interest rather than their own? Here only elections could keep people honest. Hamilton felt that term limits would diminish presidents’ “inducements to good behavior.”

After all, he argued, in terms familiar to political science today, “the desire of reward is one of the strongest incentives of human conduct.”  Institutions can help channel that conduct in the right way. Thus, channeling Madison’s famous argument in Federalist #51, “the best security for the fidelity of mankind is to make their interest coincide with their duty.”  If presidents were shut out of office after a single term, their interests would in fact suggest self-enrichment during the limited time available. Further, without “duration,” the recipe for a sufficiently strong executive bakes an 18th-century version of lame duck-ness.  Without presidential re-eligibility, other branches of government would simply wait to pounce, eroding presidential power. This could even be true in the executive branch itself; good people will be loath to join an administration that is about to end (a point Bernstein makes nicely in the piece above.)

As Summers says, this is hardly dispositive. It might be, for instance, that we’ve moved past “sufficiently strong” to “far too strong.”  Presidency studies immortal Tom Cronin has argued along those lines in favor of term limits generally.  Limits do serve as an automated check against public infatuation with another of Hamilton’s great concerns: demagoguery.

Still, as Hamilton warned, if nothing else, “There is an excess of refinement in the idea of disabling the people to continue in office men who had entitled themselves, in their opinion, to approbation and confidence.”  In a democracy we do need to trust that, in the end, V.O. Key was right: that “voters are not fools.”

Andrew Rudalevige is Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government at Bowdoin College. He specializes in the study of American political institutions, primarily the presidency and the interbranch relations, with a recent focus on presidential management of the executive branch.
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Andrew Gelman · August 13