Time to End Presidential Term Limits?

Pejman Yousefzadeh argues that President Bush is falling prey to to a familiar trend.

[A]ny reasonably informed observer of the American political system will likely point out that just about every second-term administration in recent times has suffered dramatic political reversals and bouts of severe unpopularity. The reasons vary from administration to administration, but there is a great deal of writing and thinking available on the second-term curse that seems to afflict Presidents who successfully persuade the American electorate to give them and their administrations four more years.

I am more than willing to fault the Bush Administration’s political shop for blunders that it could have easily avoided. But I am also more than willing to believe that any administration will likely fall victim to the second-term curse given the current state of our political structure. And the blame for that larger problem lies with the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.


Once a candidate for the Presidency wins election for his/her first term, the next Presidential campaign begins almost instantly, with hopefuls spending an inordinate amount of time in Iowa and New Hampshire even before the first month of a new President’s administration is out. Such is the nature of the permanent campaign. That’s fine; even though this insta-campaigning is going on, a first-term President still has plenty of political power with which to govern and the prospect of a re-election campaign with which to receive a mandate for a particular set of policy positions, as well as helping political allies win elections of their own.

But once that process is over, the President’s power becomes alarmingly ephemeral, with opponents and even allies helping to make a second term a sort of deathwatch, counting down the days, hours and minutes before the administration must leave office. No one fears the President because everyone knows that he/she will be going soon. Politicians who do not face term limits of their own can more easily afford to defy and outlast a term-limited President, thus handicapping an administration that will continue to try to win policy battles. And presidential aspirants further help weigh down the political operations of a second-term administration by poaching their best political operatives with the argument that the administration they currently serve is something akin to a caretaker government and that the operatives in question should devote their time and talents to future presidential campaigns instead of the deeply important policy and political struggles of the present.

Yousefzadeh states numerous times in the piece that first and foremost he blames Bush and his staff for most of their problems and that the lame duck issue is merely secondary. I agree.

I have been opposed to presidential term limits and other constitutional limits on the voters’ will (minimum candidate age, candidate residency requirements, presidents must be native born, etc.) for as long as I have been concerned about such things.* Were there no 22nd Amendment, Bill Clinton would almost certainly have been re-elected in 2000 and, who knows, again in 2004. That would have been an unhappy result from my perspective but it should have been the people’s prerogative.

It is also undeniable that the inability to run for a third term hampers a president’s leverage, especially later in his term. Of course, that is precisely what it was intended to do. Sure, it was an act of petty partisanship on the part of Republicans angry that FDR elevated the presidency to new heights but it was also intended to restore the historical understanding that presidents would serve a short time and then go home.

Further, limiting presidents to two terms has not restored the preeminence of Congress. (See my TCS piece “Real Power Is Something You Take” for background.) Even as lame ducks wounded by scandals and low poll numbers, all of the two-term post-22nd Amendment presidents (Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush) managed to maintain the position of the president as the dominant actor in American politics and get significant legislation passed. In the first three cases, they did so even with the opposition party in control of Congress.

Nor am I convinced that having grandstanding presidential wannabes in the incumbent’s party is much of an argument for repeal. The Framers intended Congress to be jealous of its own institutional power and without permanent alliances with the executive. The nature of the party system has turned that on its head. The fact that John McCain and other rivals for the Republican nomination might oppose Bush’s agenda to further their own helps restore the natural checks and balances of the system. Getting legislation passed is supposed to be incredibly difficult, after all.

The most convincing argument for repealing the 22nd Amendment, then, remains freedom. If the people want to re-elect a charismatic leader who is probably fresh out of good ideas and a little shopworn, that should be their right.


*More recently, I have supported term limits for Members of Congress. This is a different issue for institutional reasons: Senior Members have inordinate power vis-a-vis junior ones, distorting the geographical parity that the Framers intended. Were they merely voting for their own representatives, I would say citizens should have the right to vote for anyone they want, no matter how decrepit and out of touch. In reality, however, those who live in districts or states who have very senior Members are in essence voting for the leadership of the Congress without the rest of us having a say.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. In general, I trust the idea of the people getting their choice and having to live with it. On the other hand, I also see a value of the “fresh choice” forced by term limits. With 98+% of congressional incumbents being returned, I like a combination of term limits with the ability of the people to override the limits. For example, a representative would need a simple majority for his first re-election. Every re-election after that, he would need a progressively higher percentage (maxing out at some relatively high percentage). If 3/4 of a district wants the guy to represent them, let him stay however long. He is obviously representing the vast (vs simple) majority of the voters. Of course if you set the level at 75% and you only got 74%, then the choice of 26% would be the representative for the next two years. Then they would either need to have gained enough support to represent a majority or lose to someone who can get a majority.

    Of course, there would be other unintended consequences that I haven’t thought about. And that lies at the heart of any change. As bad as the current system is, there is no other system that I see around the world that I like the results of better. So going in and mucking about with the mechanics of our political system should not be done lightly.

  2. Tano says:

    While there may be advantages to term limits, the fact that they violate the foundational principle of democracy – that the people should be free to choose who they want, makes them totally unacceptable. Period. And that goes for Congress as well as the presidency. Arguments that try to justify one as opposed to the other are incoherent.

    Clinton did not suffer any lack of popularity in his second term. He continued upward into the low sixties, and remained there, remarkably stable – despite the vulgar shenanaigans of his opponents in Congress.

  3. Anderson says:

    Akhil Amar discusses this issue in his new book on the Constitution, and I have to agree that the weakening of the Presidency in the 2d term is not a good thing. Though anything that rules out 12 years of Bush is not fundamentally wrong.

    Amar also notes that the 22d appears to have raised the prestige of the vice-presidency, which is certainly a curious side-effect.

  4. MrGone says:

    While the framers never intended term limits they also never anticipated a permanent new class – career politicians.

    To me, this is another example of why the constitution must be updated occasionally. Term limits for all! Let public service be just that, not a career choice.

  5. G A Phillips says:

    MrGone you have a great point, beautiful. Don’t think I can handle another 30 years of Ted Kennedy.

  6. legion says:

    Spot on, MrGone! (Hey – that rhymes!)
    I also don’t think the founding fathers ever imagined the general populace would care as little about elections as they seem to these days – the advantage in (and need for) fundraising and name recognition that an incumbent has outweighs the threat of not being able to continually re-elect the same joker (IMHO).

  7. Another proposal: no limit on the number of presidential terms, but add the stipulation that they must be non-consecutive. i.e. If Joe Doe is elected in 2008, he can’t run in 2012, but can in 2016.

  8. Mort says:

    I say one 6 year term for Pres. and a max of 10 years for congress. Then get the hell out of the way for someone else.

    To an earlier comment about Clinton being elected in 2000 and possible 2004 I say – Thank God we have some limits. After all he is to blame for most of the problems we are having now. Belive-dat!

  9. McGehee says:

    I’m liking Stormy’s idea, if it applies to both houses of Congress as well.

  10. RJN says:

    I agree with MrGone. All elected public officials should have term limits. Too much power accrues to those who stay in office for long periods.

    Twelve years for all members of Congress seems enough. While we are at it, how about age 74 for SCOTUS.

  11. djneylon says:

    If we had term limits for Congress (say three terms in House, two in Senate), the two term limit for Presidents might not be so bad (BTW, this was custom following Washington, until FDR ran for third and fourth terms, which led to 22nd amendment preventing future from throwing tradition out the window)