Second term presidents almost always fail. Should we get rid of term limits on them?


In this Sept. 7, 1942, file photo President Franklin Roosevelt addresses the nation via radio. (AP Photo/File)

Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers penned an op-ed on Monday in the Post arguing that the time had come to rethink limiting presidents to two four-year terms in office. Wrote Summers: "Second presidential terms are almost without exception very difficult for the president and his team, for the government and for the country." Summers proposed two possible solutions: 1) a single six year term or 2) abolishing the 22nd Amendment, which limits presidents to two terms.

I've been thinking -- and writing -- a lot of late about whether (and how) a president can succeed in our modern age and was immediately intrigued by the possibilities Summers lays out. (Worth noting: Changing the Constitution almost certainly won't be happening any time soon. The last time an amendment to the Constitution was ratified was back in 1992 when the 27th amendment, which was originally proposed in the 1790s, was approved. The 27th Amendment ensures that congressional pay raises don't go into effect until the following Congress.)

So, I reached out to a handful of presidential scholars and watchers to get their takes on whether a single six year term, abolishing the two-term limit or some other proposal might make the presidency a more effective office in the future. Excerpts from those conversations are below -- followed by a few of my own thoughts.

David OrentlicherSamuel R. Rosen Professor of Law at Indiana University

I think it is a problem when presidents become lame ducks, so I would prefer abolition of term limits over a single six-year term. That said, as Summers suggests, neither of those reforms really does much to address the serious problem of partisan conflict. Removing the constraint of term limits or extending the presidential term from four to six years could enhance the ability of presidents to act unilaterally when gridlock blocks congressional action, but that likely would also provoke even greater congressional obstruction. Rather than defusing the problem of partisan conflict, we would exacerbate it.

I've favored reforms that would create greater incentives for cooperation rather than conflict. In particular, I like the approach more common in Europe, especially Switzerland, of having the major parties share the executive power. If governmental leaders understand that they can achieve their goals only through cooperation, there will be more cooperation and less conflict (as happened with Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch). In addition, if voters on both sides of the political aisle are represented in the executive branch, you don't have a mass of disaffected voters who are receptive to a strategy of obstruction.

Andrew Rudalevige, Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government at Bowdoin College

I think that the need to run for re-election keeps presidents honest. If anything, the 22nd amendment limiting presidents to two terms is the problem; Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers waxes eloquent about the accountability imposed by the desire to make the voters want to vote for you. It's true that second terms have often gone awry -- though FDR's third was better than his second! -- but it's not clear this is because of the need to run for re-election.

Indeed, for all the talk about the statesmanship empowered by not having to run again it's really the lame-duck status that status confers that seems to be dominant. Presumably a one term president would be a lame duck from Day 1 (or Day 101 -- we'll give her a honeymoon).  There is no reason to think election madness (e.g. for 2022 after the 2016 election) wouldn't begin just as early in this system as it does presently.

Gerhard Peters, director of the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara

In considering presidential term length or term-limit reform, we must acknowledge the character of the system of separate institutions with their own distinct sources of electoral legitimacy.  Lyndon Johnson, one of the presidents who most understood Congress and members' interests, knew that his ability to get the Voting Rights Act, and other elements of his progressive domestic agenda enacted, would have to happen before late 1965 approached.  That is even considering his historic landslide over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election.  Johnson knew that as 1966 approached, members of Congress with their own distinct electoral concerns and homogeneous constituencies would have no choice but to begin to defect from the president's agenda since they had to face voters in the 1966 midterms. One idea to complement (or substitute) calls for presidential term reform would be to amend the length of a House member's term to four years as LBJ himself suggested and have those elections coincide with the presidential election. In the spirit of Madison, this would not upset the delicate system of guarding against the passions of public opinion sweeping some faction into power since the Senate should stick with staggered six year terms.

In addition to those thoughts, let me add a few of my own. The lens I tend to think of the presidential term limits question is basketball: professional and pickup. (I play the latter, not the former, in case you were wondering.)

In pro basketball, there is a well-known phenomenon that players in the final year of their contracts tend to put up their best numbers -- motivated by the need to show their skills to both their current team and other suitors as they seek a new contract. In politics, once a president wins a second term, his focus immediately turns to legacy building not winning over either constituents or Congress. President Obama was fond of saying that he had run his last campaign in the wake of 2012 -- using it as an argument for why congressional Republicans should work with him. But, without at least the prospect of having to deal with President Obama for another term, Republicans largely tuned him out -- positioning themselves for the 2014 midterm elections and the likely race against Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Then there is pickup basketball, of which I know more having played avidly -- if not expertly -- for a very long time. Most pickup games are governed by a simple rule: If your team wins, you stay on the court. You hold the court until someone beats you. (Sidenote: My old man hoops league does not respect this tradition; after two games you are off no matter what.)  Put another way, quoting the immortal words of Ric Flair: "To be the man, you gotta beat the man."

For what it's worth, most federal elections work this way; there are no term limits on members of the House or Senate. Wouldn't it be intriguing if, after a 2012 election in which Republicans were certain they were going to beat President Obama and didn't, they got a third shot at it in 2016? (Polling suggest Mitt Romney would win a rematch against Obama if the race was held now.) And, it would be equally fascinating to watch the machinations of someone like Bill Clinton around mid-1999 as he contemplated whether he should run for a third term? (Let's be honest: He totally would have run again.)

Yes, these are the musings of a political junkie, not a Constitutional scholar. And, yes, it's hard to see executive office reform too terribly high on any politician's agenda in 2016. But, imagine the possibilities if it was.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza · August 12