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Ouster By the People

By Robert Dallek
Sunday, August 5, 2007

Polls showing President Bush's approval ratings in the 20s and 30s and a New York Times survey last month reporting that people across the country are eager for an end to the current administration suggest that this nation has a problem it's going to have to live with for the next 17 months -- a failed presidency that won't reestablish its credibility with a national majority.

The political argument against Bush's continuing tenure is not frivolous. There are good reasons to see him as a failed president whose remaining time in office will be unproductive at best and destructive to the country's well-being at worst. But given the constitutional rules by which the presidency operates, there is no serious prospect of removing him from office.

A fine solution would be a Nixon-style resignation, but anyone who thinks that Bush and Vice President Cheney would give in to such a demand is dreaming. With no serious threat of impeachment looming, Bush and Cheney can afford to dismiss calls for their departure as the outcries of political extremists. Instead, the president, determined to stay the course, declares that his strategy in Iraq needs more time to work, that the many charges of abuse of power are unsubstantiated, and that, as with Harry Truman, who also lost his hold on the public in the last two years of his presidency, history will vindicate him.

It's enough to make people think about a constitutional amendment for removing a president other than by impeachment or because of incapacity, as is now provided for under the 25th Amendment.

Such an amendment would need to set a high bar for removal and include a process that would be the greatest possible expression of the popular will. This could best be achieved through a recall procedure beginning in the House and the Senate, where a 60 percent vote would be required in both chambers to initiate a national referendum that would be open to all citizens eligible to vote in state elections. The ballot would simply ask voters to say yes or no to removing the president and vice president from office immediately. Should a majority vote to recall both incumbents, the speaker of the House would succeed to the presidency and, under the provisions of the 25th Amendment, would choose a vice president, who would need to be confirmed by majorities in the House and the Senate.

The new amendment would undoubtedly encourage some interest groups unhappy with administration policies to make abortive attempts to oust a president. But the public should remember that presidential setbacks such as those Franklin Roosevelt suffered in 1937-38 or Harry Truman experienced in 1946, when his approval ratings fell to 32 percent, were not the full measure of what they were later able to accomplish.

Judging from experience in the 18 states where a recall process exists for sitting governors, a presidential recall is likely to be rare. Only twice since progressives put the recall in place at the start of the last century have governors been ousted: Lynn J. Frazier in North Dakota in 1921 and, much more recently, Gray Davis in 2003 in California (where Arnold Schwarzenegger has gone on to give recall elections a good name).

However limited the use of this initiative might prove to be, its availability could help to pressure an ineffective, unpopular president into abandoning policies or altering actions that had turned the country against him. Would Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding have been so casual about the wrongdoing in their administrations if they knew that a device other than impeachment existed for ousting them? Might Herbert Hoover have been less rigid or more receptive to fresh ideas for dealing with the Depression if he had a greater sense of urgency about satisfying public demands for economic remedies? Would Lyndon Johnson have been so unyielding about escalating the war in Vietnam if he feared voter wrath before the end of his four-year term?

Such an amendment would compel presidents to think about public support or government by consensus throughout their time in office, rather than as they approached reelection, particularly during a second term, when they would otherwise have no reason to fear voter repudiation.

Obviously, this proposal is not going to affect Bush's tenure. But his presidency is a troubling lesson in the malaise that can settle over the country during the lame-duck period of a stubborn chief executive. The nation should be able to remove by an orderly constitutional process any president with an unyielding commitment to failed policies and an inability to renew the country's hope.

Robert Dallek is a historian the author most recently of "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power."

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