The Curse of the Two-Term Limit
The Curse of the Two-Term Limit

by Jules Witcover

As Barack Obama struggles to gain political traction as a lame-duck president in his remaining three years in office, the two-term limit on service in the Oval Office has encouraged a premature public focus on the identity of his successor in 2017.

Beyond a growing sense that Obama's momentum has been stalled by the Obamacare troubles, the early attention being afforded to the expectation that Hillary Clinton will seek the next Democratic nomination has intruded on the president's efforts to remain relevant.

At the same time, the prospect that she could be the 2016 Democratic nominee has contributed to the interest within the Republican Party in a particularly uncertain quest for its next nominee, with no senior member in line to claim the role.

As for Obama, his continuing difficulties with GOP congressional obstruction have made it critical that his party gain control or at least make appreciable gains in the House in November's midterm elections, and hold onto its Senate majority. Failure to do so could well kill his chances to move beyond being a fixer of inherited economic woes at home, to his own ambitious, unfulfilled agenda.

His dilemma could be called the curse of the two-term limit, the original standard set by George Washington when he declined in 1796 to seek a third term that almost certainly would have been his, had he chosen to seek it.

The two men most prominently positioned to succeed him, his Federalist vice president John Adams and Anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson, silently and respectfully awaited his decision to retire before acceding to supporters' efforts in their behalf. But later, in 1807, Jefferson was recorded as saying without a two-term limit, a president could hold the job "for life."

Some two-term presidents thereafter, such as Theodore Roosevelt, did seek a third term. After reaching the presidency upon the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 and being re-elected in 1904, TR tried, but not consecutively.

On the night of his re-election, he jolted the country by declaring: "The wise custom which limits the President to two terms regards the substance and not the form, and under no circumstances will I be a candidate for or accept another nomination." Roosevelt was only 46 years old at the time. But in 1912 he changed his mind and tried again, running as a third-party nominee, and lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

The two-term limit was imposed by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress in 1947 and ratified in 1951, after Franklin D. Roosevelt had broken the Washington tradition and was elected not only to a third term but to a fourth in 1944.

It provides that "no person shall be elected to the office of President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or has 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."

President Harry Truman, who served more than three years of FDR's fourth term and was elected in his own right in 1948, ordinarily would not have been eligible to run again in 1952, the year after the amendment's ratification. But the amendment explicitly excluded him as serving at the time.

The two-term limit, embraced by the Republican Party after the FDR experience, gave many of its followers cause to regret when the popular two-term President Ronald Reagan was not eligible to run for a third in 1988. The party nominated his loyal vice president, the first George Bush, in what many hoped would in effect be a third Reagan term. But Bush, who won, turned out to be a weak imitation.

The limit of two presidential terms thus obliges President Obama, thwarted in his first five years in office, to depend heavily on acquiring a much more cooperative Congress in the approaching November elections. And he could well do without the early spotlight on Hillary Clinton to succeed him competing for Democratic enthusiasm right now.




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The Curse of the Two-Term Limit