James MacGregor Burns & Susan Dunn: No More Second-Term Blues

Roundup: Historians' Take

AS George W. Bush's leadership flounders a little more than a year after his re-election, we are seeing a return of an old affliction in American politics, "second termitis." The protracted woes of Richard Nixon's Watergate, Ronald Reagan's Iran-contra affair, and Bill Clinton's impeachment were all, in part, manifestations of that malady.

Is there some human failing that affects second-term presidents, like arrogance or sheer fatigue? To some degree, perhaps. But the main problem is not personal but institutional - or rather constitutional, as embodied by the 22nd Amendment limiting presidential tenure.

A second-term president will, in effect, automatically be fired within four years. Inevitably his influence over Congress, and even his authority over the sprawling executive branch, weaken. His party leadership frays as presidential hopefuls carve out their own constituencies for the next election. Whether the president is trying to tamp down scandal or push legislation, he loses his ability to set the agenda.

But whether or not a president has a diminished second term, the amendment barring a third term presents the broader and more serious question of his accountability to the people.

While political commentators analyze every twist in White House politics, while citizens follow dramatic stories of leaks, investigations and indictments, the one person who does not have to care is George W. Bush. In a sense, he has transcended the risks and rewards of American politics. He will not run again for office. The voters will not be able to thank him - or dump him.

And yet accountability to the people is at the heart of a democratic system.

There was nothing in the original Constitution of 1787 that barred a third or fourth term for presidents. That was why Franklin Delano Roosevelt could run again in 1940 and 1944, becoming the only president to serve more than two terms. And that was why, three years later, in 1947, after sporadic public debate, Republicans demanded presidential term limits and changed the Constitution.

With majorities in both chambers of Congress, Republicans, joined by Southern Democrats opposed to the New Deal, were able to push the 22nd Amendment through the House (after only two hours of debate!) and the Senate (after five days of debate). At the time, an amendment limiting presidents to two terms in office seemed an effective way to invalidate Roosevelt's legacy, to discredit this most progressive of presidents. In the House, one of the few Northern Democrats to vote with the majority was freshman representative John F. Kennedy, whose father had fallen out with Roosevelt. In the spring of 1947, as the historian David Kyvig noted, 18 state legislatures rushed to ratify the amendment, with virtually no public participation in the debate. By 1951, the required three-fourths of the state legislatures had ratified it.

While George Washington limited himself to two terms, it had never been his intention to create a precedent. Washington didn't want to die in office and have the succession appear "monarchical." But his primary reason for retiring was simply that after a lifetime of public service, he was bone-tired, desperate to return to the tranquillity of Mount Vernon. ...

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