Will Presidential Term Limits Ever Be Abolished?

tags: Barack Obama, presidents, FDR, term limits, Michael J. Korzi


Michael J. Korzi is Professor of Political Science at Towson University. His most recent book, "Presidential Term Limits in American History," won the 2011 Richard E. Neustadt Award for Best Book on the Presidency.

FDR with Churchill and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, a few months before his death.

Barack Obama’s second term inauguration falls on Monday, January 21, 2013. While we can make educated predictions about how the president’s second term will turn out -- e.g., second terms usually do not end well -- in truth, any predictions, even those informed by historical patterns and trends, are going to contain a large dose of speculation. Yet, we can say something definite about President Obama’s second inauguration and second term: they will be his last. Barring a change to the Constitution, no doubt to Democrats’ chagrin -- and Republicans’ relief -- President Obama is prohibited from seeking a third term. It is worthwhile to consider, on the occasion of President Obama’s inauguration, the rationale for the 22nd Amendment and its two-term limit, which has affected presidents since Eisenhower.

The popular scholarly interpretation of the 22nd Amendment is that it was largely a partisan amendment, sour grapes on the part of Republicans who could not beat Democrat Franklin Roosevelt at the polls. To be sure, FDR’s election to an unprecedented third, and then fourth, term certainly spurred the passage of the 22nd Amendment. Yet, it wasn’t only partisan pique that led to the two-term limitation. If Roosevelt’s third-term election (with the war in Europe as its backdrop) had made the case for unlimited reelection of presidents, his fourth term election suggested the wisdom of term limitation.

Although the Founders of the Constitution consciously chose not to limit the terms of either the president or members of Congress, a tradition was started by Thomas Jefferson, and fortified by his successors, that would limit presidents to two terms. This became known as the “two-term tradition.” Some scholars mistakenly attribute the two-term tradition to President Washington. However, Washington was clear in his correspondence that he would have considered a third term if his services were needed (he concluded that they were not). Rather, it was the “republican” Jefferson who worried greatly about executive power and believed a limit on tenure would do some good toward controlling presidential power. If FDR’s pursuit of a third term represents Washington’s perspective -- the stability of leadership in a time of crisis -- Roosevelt’s pursuit of a fourth term illustrates Jefferson’s wisdom in being wary of the long tenure of executives.

The story of Roosevelt’s election to a third term is well known. With war breaking out in Europe in 1939, the second-term president decided to run for an unprecedented third term. Roosevelt publicly expressed unwillingness to run again and justified his change of heart ultimately because war was raging in Europe and the people had requested his continued services -- it was important to FDR and his advisers that the decision be seen as a “draft” by the people. The New York Times, however, said of the draft that it “was never able to shake off the quotation marks.” Indeed, the documentary record suggests that as early as 1938 -- before war started in Europe -- some in the administration were considering a third term pursuit, ostensibly because the New Deal needed to be protected.

Be that as it may, few would argue that Roosevelt’s leadership was detrimental to the United States through the course of the third term and especially with regard to World War II. For good reason FDR’s third term is often held up as a model by term limits opponents. Had the nation been deprived of Roosevelt’s services during World War II because of an arbitrary term limit, so the argument goes, who knows how the United States would have fared. There is a certain persuasiveness to this “indispensable leader” argument. While somewhat exaggerated -- after all, Truman ended up filling FDR’s shoes surprisingly well -- it is hard to argue that the United States had a better tested and tried leader than Roosevelt available in 1940. It was precisely this kind of circumstance that led the Founders to oppose term limits. And, yet, FDR and his advisers foolishly pushed forward for a fourth term in 1944, thereby also illustrating Jefferson’s countervailing worries about the perils of long presidential tenure.

In one of his most insightful comments on the presidency, Thomas Jefferson said that "[i]n no office can rotation [term limits] be more expedient; and none less admits the indulgence of age." His point was that over time the duties and responsibilities of the presidency would be such a burden, that they could not but sap the strength and energy of even vigorous individuals. This position should not be hard for us to understand today, when the responsibilities of the office have multiplied almost exponentially since Jefferson’s day. Indeed, a common talking point is how quickly a new president’s hair will grey due to the demands of the office. The burdens of the office clearly caught up with Roosevelt, becoming especially evident in the third term and in the run up to reelection in 1944.

Although not well known until recently, it is now beyond dispute that during his third term, particularly in 1944, FDR had alarmingly high blood pressure, began experiencing congestive heart failure, and was being seen regularly by a cardiologist (beginning in March 1944). The cardiologist, in fact, informed Roosevelt’s personal doctor that he would not expect Roosevelt to live more than a year or two. Roosevelt’s illness would eventually see the president capable of working no more than about four hours a day. As we would find out in the days after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 (only months into his fourth term), Roosevelt’s doctors had not been the only ones who were worried about Roosevelt’s health. Many in the Washington community who regularly saw the president doubted that he would complete his fourth term. And, still, the administration pressed on for a fourth term, seemingly oblivious to the president’s health issues and the possibility of incapacity or, ultimately, presidential succession.

It is sometimes argued that Roosevelt knew that he was dying and that he deftly chose Truman as his vice president and then groomed him for his impending responsibilities. This is wishful thinking. Not only was Truman predominantly a political selection but, according to Truman biographer David McCullough, as vice president Truman only twice met personally with Roosevelt and neither time was anything of substance discussed. Truman would confront a steep learning curve when he assumed the office.

Nevertheless, there appears to be nothing conspiratorial about Roosevelt’s -- and his advisers’ – poor decision making in 1944. Rather, it seems to be born of a type of “self-delusion” that another of our presidents, Calvin Coolidge, noted when discussing the necessity of term limits: “It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. ... They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.” Conspiratorial or merely delusional, FDR and his advisers all the same did a disservice to the nation by failing to confront the president’s serious health problems and thereby pursuing a fourth term.

Thus do Franklin Roosevelt’s third and fourth terms offer different lessons for restricting the terms of presidents. With the third term, we see the very real benefits of experienced “emergency” leadership. With the fourth term, we see the diminishing returns of long presidential tenure. Likewise with presidential tenure in general, there are no easy answers, only difficult choices. Since the passage of the 22nd Amendment, we have erred on the side of restraining presidential leadership, but if a crisis were to occur in the second term of a respected and popular president, would we change our minds? It is worth pondering whether FDR will be the only American president to deliver a third (and fourth) inaugural address.

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