The Two-Term Limit on the Presidency

Speaking in Africa last year, President Barack Obama said that he could win a third term as President if he were not precluded by U.S. law from doing so. Leaving aside for the moment whether the voters would actually want Mr. Obama for a third term, it does raise some interesting questions.

Franklin D. Roosevelt is the only President elected for more than two terms.

The only U.S. President to be elected to more than two terms was Franklin D. Roosevelt who served three full terms and died 2 months into his fourth. The only other president that came close to being a three-term president was Theodore Roosevelt who served 3 years and 5 months of the remaining term of President William McKinley, who was assassinated after serving only six months. Roosevelt won a full first term in 1904 but decided not to seek reelection in 1908. Roosevelt decided to run again in 1912 but was defeated in his attempt for a third term.

The ninth U.S. President died after only one month in office

Ulysses S. Grant also explored a third term in 1877 but failed to win the nomination of his party. The holder of the record for the shortest time in office was William Henry Harrison, who died one month into his first term as president in 1841.
Two years after the death of Franklin Roosevelt Congress passed the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution, which set a two-term limit on the presidency. The Amendment was ratified by the required number of states four years later and became law in 1951. Proponents of the Amendment argued that the founding fathers would have supported the Amendment due to their concern that America should never become a monarchy. Opponents argued that the American people should be the ultimate judge of who should be president.
Between 1997 and 2013 Rep. Jose Serrano (D, NY.) introduced legislation to repeal the Twenty-second Amendment at least eight times. It gathered modest support, but not enough to pass.

Former Presidents oppose the Twenty-second Amendment

Former Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton have all expressed the opinion that the Twenty-second Amendment was a poor idea. Eisenhower felt that it made the president a lame duck for most of his final years in office. A Roper poll done in 2013 revealed that 81% of the public favored repealing the two-term limit.
Shouldn’t a president be able to take two terms, take time off and run again? I’ve always thought that should be the rule. I think as a practical matter, you couldn’t apply this to anyone who has already served, but going forward, I personally believe that should be the rule.
— Former President Bill Clinton
If a President was determined to have a third term in office, there are some loopholes in the Twenty-second Amendment that might allow that to happen, although none are considered very likely. A former President could be elected Vice President, or become a cabinet member and ascend to the presidency via the Presidential Succession Act. In reality, it is hard to imagine that a former President would be willing to become Vice-President or a Cabinet member after holding the presidency. Plus, there would be endless legal challenges to the process that would likely run on for years.

If Obama could run for a third term would he win?

So, if Barack Obama were able to run for a third term would he win? Given the unpopularity of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it is at least a reasonable possibility. On the other hand, while President Obama’s approval ratings have improved in the past few months, numerous polls show that Americans are generally dissatisfied with the government and its leaders. The success of the populist campaigns of Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders attest to America’s desire for political change.

A natural equilibrium

Americans have shown a preference for changing the presidency when one party has been in power for too long. In seven of the last nine elections, the voters have decided to switch the party in power following a two-term president. There appears to be a natural equilibrium in the two party system which serves to keep the country in balance.

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