Last week when he appeared on MSNBC to promote his new book, Bill Clinton suggested that former presidents who have served two terms should be able to seek a nonconsecutive third term. Only two former presidents have tried to do so. Ulysses S. Grant sought, and almost won, the Republican presidential nomination in 1880. And Theodore Roosevelt, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1912, lost, and then ran unsuccessfully as a third party candidate.
In 1951 the Twenty-Second Amendment, which prohibits any person from being "elected to the office of the President more than twice," became part of the U.S. Constitution. Since then Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush have served two terms. The Twenty-Second Amendment prevented all of them from seeking a nonconsecutive third term. Which is a shame because if in 2004 Bill Clinton had been the Democratic Party's nominee he would have mopped the floor with George W. Bush. And even if Bill had lost, boy would that election have been fun to watch.
On MSNBC Bill Clinton suggested that the two-terms-and-forever-gone rule should be revisited because former presidents are "living longer." However, what former presidents actually are doing is getting themselves elected younger. When they finished their second terms Clinton was 54 and Bush was 62. And if President Obama wins a second term, he will be 55 when he leaves office.
But rather than allowing former two-term presidents to serve a nonconsecutive third term, the nation would be better served by amending the constitution to allow presidents to serve one six-year term.
That is not as radical an idea as at first blush it may sound.
In 1787 the delegates to the Constitutional Convention voted to limit the president to one seven-year term. But because they knew that General George Washington, the Convention's presiding officer whom they all revered, would be the first president, the delegates relented, established a four-year term, and did not restrict the number of terms Washington could serve.
In 1796 President Washington declined to seek a third term. That act of forbearance began the tradition that a president serves no more than two consecutive terms. The tradition held until 1940 when, with the nation on the brink of being drawn into a world war, President Franklin Roosevelt sought and won a third term, and in 1944 sought and won a fourth term.
In 1945 President Roosevelt died in office. In the 1946 election, the Republican Party won control of both houses of Congress. In 1947 when the new Congress convened, in both the House and the Senate the Republican leadership's number one legislative priority was to prevent future presidents from replicating Roosevelt's feat because, as Republican Representative Ellsworth Buck explained, "dictatorships are spawned by the repeated election of one man."
When Representative Earl Michener, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, pushed the joint resolution that would become the Twenty-Second Amendment through his Committee, Representative Emanuel Celler, the ranking Democrat, offered an amendment to allow one six-year presidential term "with no right of reelection." The Celler amendment was not a new idea since, among others, Presidents Rutherford Hayes and William Howard Taft had recommended that presidents serve one six-year term. Nevertheless, the Celler amendment was easily defeated.
When the joint resolution reached the House floor, Representative Celler again offered his amendment. Although it had a modicum of bi-partisan support from, among other Republicans, an Illinois congressman named Everett Dirksen, the Celler amendment again was defeated on a voice vote.
Since then the idea of one six-year presidential term has received little serious consideration. But as Representative Celler reminded his colleagues during the House debate on the Michener joint resolution: "It has always been natural for the incumbent president to have his eyes fixed on reelection, and all acts of the first term, directly or indirectly, in some measure are affected by the ambition for a second term." And some years earlier Republican Senator Elihu Root told the Senate that after serving as President McKinley's Secretary of War and President Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of State and then in the Senate he had concluded that "the possibility of renomination and reelection of a President who is in office seriously interferes with the working of our governmental machinery during the last two years of his term" because "just about the time he gets to the point of highest efficiency, people in the Senate and in the House begin to figure to try to beat him" and "you cannot separate the attempt to beat the individual from the attempt to make ineffective the operations of government which that individual is carrying on in accordance with his duty."
Does any of that sound familiar?
At the end of his first year in office Barack Obama told ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer that "I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president." But if that was true would American servicemen and women still be dying in Afghanistan while President Obama pursues a rehash of the Nixon Vietnamization policy so that candidate Obama can insulate himself from the charge that he is weak on defense? Would the Drug Enforcement Agency be raiding medical marijuana farms in California? Two months ago, would President Obama have overruled EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and ordered EPA not to increase its regulation of ozone and then promised Jackson that if he is reelected she can revisit the issue in 2013? To avoid alienating either environmental activists or labor leaders whose support candidate Obama needs, last week would the State Department have delayed a decision on approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline until after the 2012 election? And for the past three years would Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner have expended the political capital that they have attempting, with not inconsiderable success, to prevent Congress from enacting President Obama's legislative program because, as McDonnell, with commendable candor, admitted, his top priority as Minority Leader is "to deny President Obama a second term"?
In The Federalist No. 51, James Madison famously noted that "if men were angels, no government would be necessary." Because presidents are not angels, if knowing they can serve only one six-year term frees them to make decisions that are right for the nation but wrong for their reelection, presidents still will make decisions that subordinate the interests of the nation to the electoral aspirations of the political party of which a particular president is the titular head. But there will be fewer of them. And opposition solons like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner (and Nancy Pelosi during the Bush presidency) will have a more difficult time publicly justifying their obstructionism.
Is a six-year presidential term the solution to every problem that vexes the nation? Of course not. But is it a constitutional reform that merits serious public discussion? Absolutely.