In 1940, something happened that had not happened before in the history of the United States. A President pursued and secured a third consecutive term in office. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was that man, and the rationale was that we needed continuity of leadership during World War II. Roosevelt’s specifically stated goal was to avoid entry into the war, but of course we all know how that turned in December of 1941. Winston Churchill’s tenure was similarly extended across the pond, for similar reasons.
Our very first President, George Washington, set the precedent of retiring after his second term. That precedent was followed for a remarkably long time without requiring an Amendment to the Constitution. But after World War II and Roosevelt’s death in office, the Republican Party pushed hard on the 22nd Amendment, passing it in 1947. It was ratified by two thirds of the states in 1951, with a grandfather clause for President Harry Truman, who opted not to run for a third term anyway. Here is the text of the 22nd Amendment (Section 1):
No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of President more than once. But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed by Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.
So, the convention that was mostly followed before Roosevelt became law, and now every President who wins a second term is officially a “lame duck”. Ducks don’t walk that impressively to begin with, so to be a lame one is decidedly embarrassing.
An interesting twist to the 22nd Amendment is in Section 2:
This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission to the States by the Congress.
In other words, Congress set a timer on whether this one would go into effect. We put a limit on how long we would be willing to consider putting a limit on something.
The 22nd Amendment attempts to strike a delicate balance. Allowing just one term would make the President a duck from the inauguration onward. Allowing a President more than two terms, as became a fear during the Roosevelt presidency, begins to look more like a monarch, which is what we initially ran from when we became a nation.
I have pretty strong feelings about the concept of reelection. I believe it adds motivation to do things that aren’t in the best interest of the country, so that one may remain in power for a bit longer. I also believe that applies at all levels of government. The argument against that, of course, is what if you get someone in there who really is good. But I would argue that we’d eliminate a lot of people who really aren’t good from the process if we made it impossible for them to stay in power for more than one term. Suddenly you have two, four, or six years to do your best, and then you’re done, for good. I believe we would find in such a world that there are a lot more really good leaders out there, and each of them would get their fair turn to advance the greater good. We as voters then might also stop tying our allegiances to individuals instead of ideas.
Counter to that view, there have been a number of attempts to repeal the 22nd Amendment, and some Presidents have stated wishes along those lines, including most recently Barack Obama. But if eight years isn’t enough time to get the job done, why would twelve or sixteen be the magic number? One might even expect the opposition to the President’s agenda to grow with the length of his or her term anyway.
So yes, you’re reading me right: I think the 22nd Amendment was a good first step, but it didn’t go far enough, either in scope or in severity. Unleash the ducks!