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The American presidency has grown in power almost continuously since the outbreak of World War II. The executive has risen from being simply the chief magistrate of the government to be being a quasi-legislative force, a leader who pushes an aggressive legislative agenda as well as enforcing the laws passed by the legislature. The president is frequently referred to as “the most powerful person in the world,” or “the leader of the free world.” Such appellations represent far more than good PR. They are statements of fact that the president of the United States has drastically more power and authority than any other individual on Earth.
For that reason certainly, presidents should be restricted to a single term of office. After the Second World War it became clear that a president with no term limits could accrue enormous personal power through networks of patronage in Congress and through a monopoly on judicial appointments. During his more than three terms in office, Franklin Roosevelt used the power of the presidency to significantly truncate the power of the other branches of government. No president in history had ever enjoyed such unrestricted power.
A Lack of Self-Restraint
The Constitution was framed with the expectation that the country’s leaders would behave justly in office and would not seek to build permanent bases of power. Presidential self-restraint was a tradition started by George Washington, the so-called Cincinnatus of the West, who led his nation through its early turbulent years and then returned to his fields as a private citizen. It was that example to which Washington’s successors looked for guidance. So long was his shadow that for 150 years those who came after him did not seek a third full term of office.
That changed with FDR, who decided that the country needed his leadership more than it needed the propriety of self-restraint. Opinion is fiercely divided on the wisdom and rectitude of Roosevelt’s decision, but what was certain to the leaders of Congress after his death and the accession of Harry Truman was that such a decision should not again be permitted. The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1951, restricting presidents to serve a maximum of two terms in office. The amendment was meant to create an electoral environment in which a president could serve eight years, but not cling to power indefinitely.
One and Done
Certainly, the two-term limit is better than no limit. However, it is not enough. There are three crucial reasons that the president should be limited to a single term. The first reason was alluded to earlier in this article, that the president’s much increased power in the contemporary political landscape demands an even greater restriction on his ability to dominate the public arena. Whereas the legislature and judiciary are composed of many competing views, with members of various parties and outlooks represented, the executive speaks with a single voice. In Congress, even the party leaderships are not the sole centers of power, with factions and alternative nexuses of influence forming throughout that branch of government. Executive power, on the other hand, rests solely in the hands of the president. The president has full power over the policies of the executive branch of government. The cabinet, which is a critical part of the executive in practice, is directly answerable to the president, and can be dismissed if they are uncooperative or otherwise incur the president’s displeasure. Presidents should be elected to fulfill their constitutional duty, not to grow their power and the power of their office. Making the presidency a “one and done” business would act as a useful balancer to the tilting landscape of contemporary American politics.
The second reason is an outgrowth of the increased presidential authority, namely the increased power of incumbency. More than just the name recognition and patronage channels created by senators and congressmen, the sheer grandness of the office of president makes it one that is hard to assail from the outside. A challenger in an election necessarily has to go toe-to-toe with the most powerful person in the world. That is a daunting challenge. A sitting president has had years to lead the mightiest nation on Earth. It is hard to beat that, even if the president is unpopular in his own right. The problem this situation creates is that it makes it exceptionally hard to get rid of a sitting president. Sure, the president will still be gone for good after another four years, but a lot of damage can be done in that time. The very nature of the presidency skews the electoral field so far that elections to unseat a president are definitionally unfair.
What’s more, presidents probably should not be campaigning for office at all. That is the third reason to restrict presidents to one term. When a president takes office for the first time, he has a relatively brief window in which to enact his policy aims before he has to focus most of his energies on getting reelected. Once reelected, presidents frequently run out of steam. The result is a presidency that is, when at its most energetic, is focused myopically on the retention of power. A one-term limit would serve to galvanize presidents to be focused on issues, not on power. It would dispose of the lost years spent campaigning for reelection in which presidents are out to protect themselves, not serve the people.
A Hard Sell
Getting a constitutional amendment underway that would limit the president in this way would be an arduous endeavor. The Constitution is hard to change at the best of times, and an amendment that takes away powers from the president can never meet smooth sailing. The hope for such a policy must rest in people waking up to the inherent flaws in the system as it is. Certainly this past election threw a lot of the problems into stark relief. Now it is a matter of showing how things would be better if Obama, or any president, had to strut their hour upon the stage without hope of an encore.