Last week the Central Committee of the Communist Party began the process of amending the Chinese Constitution to enable President Xi Jinping to stay in office after his second term ends in 2023. The change reflects international trends. In 2017 Turkish voters amended Turkey's constitution, enabling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to serve until 2029. Russia has adopted similar legislation, extending presidential terms to 6 years each. Consequently, if Vladimir Putin wins a fourth term this month as is widely expected, he will become Russia’s longest serving leader since Joseph Stalin.
The trend toward long tenures in executive office has received the admiring approval of President Donald Trump. During a speech in Florida today, Trump told Republican campaign donors that he welcomed President Xi Jinping's new powers. "He's now president for life," Trump exclaimed. "I think it's great. Maybe we'll give that a shot some day."
Notwithstanding President Trump's enthusiasm for lifetime tenure, the United States has gone in the opposite direction. Although the U.S. Constitution originally placed no term limits on the presidency, the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951 established a two-term limit that remains in force today.
Constitutionally-imposed term limits have shaped the American presidency much more profoundly than is commonly understood. Indeed, it is quite possible that Donald Trump owes his presidency to the 22nd Amendment.
Washington’s Real Motive
The two-term tradition dates to President George Washington, who famously declined to run for a third term in 1796. Washington's decision to retire is still the world’s foremost example of political self-restraint. It even impressed King George III of England, who cited the president’s retirement as evidence that Washington was “the greatest character of the age.”
In fact, however, Washington stepped down because of physical and emotional exhaustion, and not from any special desire on his part to create a two-term precedent. As he explained in his farewell address, “every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome.”
Washington’s decision to retire can only be fully understood in the broader context of his public service. He first emerged as a national leader in June 1775, when he took command of the Continental Army. The War of Independence lasted for 8 years, an extremely long time for anyone to bear the grim burdens and enormous risks associated with leading a revolutionary army in battle. Public demands on Washington's time and energy did not end when peace came. Political and economic upheaval across the new country in the 1780s prompted Washington to come out of retirement and preside over the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The Constitution’s ratification in 1788 led directly to Washington’s first term as president in 1789. Thus, with the exception of his brief retirement in the mid-1780s, Washington spent two decades in highly demanding positions of national leadership between 1775 and 1797.
The endless treadmill of heavy responsibility and relentless stress took a toll on Washington. Sixty-four years old in 1796, and longing for his old life at Mount Vernon, he could not bear the idea of enduring the grueling pressures of the presidency any longer.
Physical and emotional burnout, therefore, not a desire to create an informal limitation on future presidents, caused Washington to establish the two-term tradition.
The First President Roosevelt
Nor did Washington’s self-imposed 8-year limit prevent other presidents from attempting to serve more than two terms. Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously won election four times from 1932 to 1944.
But FDR was not the first president to seek a third term. In 1880 former two-term President Ulysses S. Grant came very close to returning to the White House for a third term. After embarking on a world tour following the end of his second term in 1877, Grant made a bid for the Republican presidential nomination at the 1880 GOP convention. He almost succeeded, until a last-second surge of support on the convention floor swung the nomination to Ohio Congressman James Garfield, one of the most surprising “dark horse” candidates in history. Garfield went on to win the presidential election in November, a sign of how close Grant came to a third term.
Woodrow Wilson’s case was more complicated. In November 1918, Germany surrendered to the Allies, thus ending World War I and propelling Wilson to the high point of his presidency. In early 1919 a third Wilson term looked like a distinct possibility. But events soon turned against him. Growing public disenchantment with Wilson’s increasingly repressive and obnoxiously self-righteous administration eroded his public standing, as did his failure to persuade the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Paris, which created the League of Nations. The strains of office also took a severe personal toll, culminating in the president’s devastating stroke in October 1919. By the time the 1920 Democratic convention arrived, Wilson’s political and physical collapse rendered his bid for a third-term pathetically hopeless. He failed to win the nomination and spent most of his last year in office confined to his bed.
But one candidate came even closer than Grant and Wilson to securing a third term: Theodore Roosevelt, FDR’s cousin and political role model.
In light of all the opportunities he had, it's remarkable that Theodore Roosevelt only served 7 and one-half years in the White House. Elected Vice President in 1900, Roosevelt became president in September 1901 when an anarchist assassinated President William McKinley during a reception in Buffalo. Skillfully stepping into his predecessor's shoes, Roosevelt soon became wildly popular and in 1904 easily won election in his own right.
TR undoubtedly would have won reelection in 1908 if not for an ill-advised pledge he made on election night 1904, when he declared: “Under no circumstances will I be a candidate for or accept another nomination.” As the historian William Harbaugh explained in his landmark biography, Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt, the unexpected announcement was “the worst political blunder of Theodore Roosevelt’s career.” The pledge made Roosevelt a lame duck before his second term even began, emboldening conservatives in the Republican congressional caucus to water down much of Roosevelt’s legislative agenda. Nevertheless, Roosevelt remained so popular with the country that even his deeply uncharismatic protégé, William Howard Taft, prevailed by a comfortable margin over William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee, in 1908. If Taft could win in 1908, then certainly Roosevelt would have prevailed as well.
From the moment he walked out the White House door in March 1909, Roosevelt regretted his decision to retire and began plotting his political comeback. He ran for president in 1912, but Taft refused to step aside, thus splitting the Republican vote with Roosevelt. Most important of all, the Democrats in 1912 nominated Wilson, who proved to be their strongest candidate in decades. An outstanding campaigner, Wilson won a huge Electoral College victory, which relegated Roosevelt to the political wilderness for the rest of his life.
Interestingly, if Theodore Roosevelt had lived into the 1920s, he would have had yet another chance at a third term. In 1920 the country turned sharply to the right and Republicans held the presidency throughout the ensuing decade. The timing would have been perfect for TR. By 1918 he had mended fences with the conservative wing of the Republican Party, and it was clear that the Republican presidential field would be very weak in 1920 (indeed, Warren G. Harding of all people would end up winning both the nomination and the presidency that year). Circumstances thus seemed poised for a Roosevelt presidency in 1920, until a pulmonary embolism took TR’s life in early 1919. He was only 60 years old.
FDR’s Political Dominance
Although Theodore Roosevelt never made it back to the White House, his cousin Franklin Roosevelt would achieve all of TR’s ambitions and more.
It is hard for modern Americans to fully grasp the extent of Franklin Roosevelt’s political success in the 1930s and 1940s. We live in an age of political trench warfare, with neither party achieving a sustained national majority beyond an election cycle or two. Since the early 1990s, no party has held the White House for more than two consecutive terms, and most presidential margins of victory have been modest. In fact, four of the last 7 presidential elections have been won by a candidate with less than 50% of the vote (Clinton in 1992 and 1996, Bush in 2000, and Trump in 2016).
That was not the case in the 1930s and 1940s. Franklin Roosevelt won 4 consecutive presidential elections—1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944—and each time garnered a decisive majority of the popular vote (including winning almost 61% of the vote in 1936). FDR also had long coattails, as the Democrats maintained large majorities in both the House and Senate throughout Roosevelt’s presidency. In 1936, for example, the year FDR won 61% of the popular vote, the Republicans suffered catastrophic defeats in the Congressional elections, finding themselves reduced to only 88 seats in the House of Representatives and 17 seats in the U.S. Senate.
Following the 1944 election, Republicans in Congress and around the country mounted a campaign to amend the Constitution to ensure there would never be another Franklin Roosevelt. In 1951 they got posthumous revenge on FDR by securing ratification of the 22nd Amendment.
The XXII Amendment’s Terms
One common misconception about the 22nd Amendment is that it only prevents presidents from serving two consecutive terms. But that is not the case. The amendment expressly prohibits anyone from serving for more than 10 years as president.
Here is the pertinent text of the 22nd Amendment (with my emphasis added):
“No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or 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 the President more than once.”
Thus, the amendment expressly prohibits anyone from serving for three terms, even non-consecutively. The 10-year cap also limits a vice president who becomes president during the first two years of the previous president’s term (such as TR in 1901, Truman in 1945, and Ford in 1974) to only one full term in office.
The timing of a president’s removal from office is thus crucial. For example, if Donald Trump were to be impeached and removed from office in 2018--during the first two years of his term--Mike Pence would become president, but the Constitution would prohibit Pence from serving more than 6 years in office. In other words, if Pence became president in 2018 and then won the 2020 election, he would be constitutionally barred from running again in 2024. The reason is because a second full term would put him over the 10-year limit on presidential service.
But if Trump were impeached and removed from office in 2019 or 2020--during the latter half of Trump's term--the 22nd Amendment would not prevent Pence from running in both 2020 and 2024. By serving for less than two years of Trump’s term, Pence would be eligible to serve for two full presidential terms of his own without exceeding the 22nd Amendment’s 10-year cap.
The Continuing Consequences of the XXII Amendment
The amendment has had other consequences that continue to shape American presidential politics. Indeed, in the absence of the 22nd Amendment, it is entirely possible that FDR would have ushered in a new era of long-serving presidents.
Since the 1950s, five presidents have served two full terms: Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. If the 22nd Amendment was never adopted, 4 of them would have had a good chance of winning a third term: Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama.
The only one of the 5 who would have had no chance of winning a third term was George W. Bush. Beset by the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis, Bush left office with his public standing in tatters. In fact, in November 2008, Bush had an approval rating of only 28%, so low that it barred any aspirations he might have had for a third term even in the absence of the 22nd Amendment.
But the other two-term presidents had much higher approval ratings during their final months in office. For example, Ronald Reagan had an average approval rating of 53% in 1988, and Barack Obama had an approval rating of 57% in November 2016. Even Bill Clinton, who was impeached in December 1998, had an approval rating of 63% in November 2000.
Moreover, each of the four two-term presidents who remained popular had relatively weak successors. Eisenhower, Clinton, and Obama were followed by presidents who only barely won the office: John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon by a razor thin margin in 1960; George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000 and only secured an Electoral College majority because of Florida’s dysfunctional election system (plus a timely assist from the U.S. Supreme Court); and Donald Trump in 2016 lost the popular vote and only carried the Electoral College by the narrowest of margins in the key states. Although Ronald Reagan's successor, his vice president George H.W. Bush, won the 1988 election by a healthy margin over Michael Dukakis, Bush languished under Reagan's shadow and never really connected with the GOP base, as evidenced by his defeat in his 1992 reelection bid.
It is certainly well within the realm of possibilities, therefore, that in the absence of the 22nd Amendment, Eisenhower in 1960 and Reagan in 1988 would have secured third terms, at least if they wanted to run again. Although Clinton versus Bush in 2000 would presumably have been a close race (not unlike Bush versus Gore), Clinton’s strong approval rating and his personal popularity in states Gore lost (especially Arkansas) would have made Clinton a very tough incumbent to beat in 2000.
What about Obama in 2016? He was only 55 years old and still in excellent health. He also despised Donald Trump and had a cold and distant relationship with Hillary Clinton. In light of the options facing the country in 2016, it’s entirely conceivable that Obama might have chosen to run for a third term if not for the 22nd Amendment.
There are several reasons to believe that Barack Obama would likely have beaten Donald Trump in a head-to-head matchup. By historical standards, Trump’s performance in 2016 was remarkably weak for a successful candidate. He lost the popular vote to Clinton by nearly 3 million votes and his 46% share of the popular vote was the worst showing for a winning candidate in 24 years. Most important of all, Trump’s Electoral College victory was made possible by his victories in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, states which he carried by a combined total of only 77,000 votes, an exceedingly small margin when compared to the 14 million votes cast overall in those states and the 136 million votes cast nationwide.
In short, Trump barely defeated Hillary Clinton, a scandal-plagued candidate with enormous baggage and high unfavorable ratings. The Russian hacking of the DNC emails and James Comey's questionable, election-eve decision to briefly but quite publicly reopen the FBI investigation into Clinton's email server further undermined Clinton's campaign. Yet, despite those severe headwinds, she still came within 77,000 votes of beating Trump, a deeply polarizing and scandal-plagued candidate in his own right.
It seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that Barack Obama—a president vastly more popular than either Clinton or Trump—would have significantly outperformed Clinton's vote totals if he had been free to run for a third term in 2016. Indeed, as just one data point of many, the decline in African American turnout from the 2012 election (which Obama won) to the 2016 election (which Clinton lost) was nearly 5% nationwide, and was even higher in key swing states. Most critical of all, the decline in black turnout exceeded Trump’s margin of victory in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, the 3 states that decided the election. The lack of enthusiasm for Clinton among black voters, combined with Obama's extremely strong showing among African Americans in 2008 and 2012, makes it likely that Obama would have attracted enough black voters to the polls to defeat Trump in 2016. The same reasoning applies to young and independent voters, who gave Obama high marks in 2016 polls.
The 22nd Amendment has thus had a major and continuing impact on the course of American political history. Indeed, without it, Barack Obama would quite possibly be a third-term president right now. Consequently, notwithstanding his envy of Xi Jinping, Donald Trump has reason to be very grateful for the Constitution’s two-term limit.