It has long been a commonplace in American history that our Chief Executive serves for only two terms. For the first 150 years of the Republic, custom and tradition well established this fact. Since the middle of the 20th century this has been codified into law. The Twenty-Second Amendment reads (in part):
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. But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.
The main breach with tradition and apparent reason for this amendment is one man: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Elected to four consecutive terms (though only serving for about twelve years from 1933-1945), FDR’s legacy seems to have been what proponents of the 22nd Amendment had in mind.
The interesting thing about this amendment is that it seems to have passed fairly quickly and with little controversy. At least none that I have ever read about. In truth, there hasn’t really ever been much to read. It is as if all at once the same nation that elected Roosevelt to four terms decided this wasn’t a good idea. While FDR had his enemies, it seems strange that such a rule would be passed after the passing of a wartime leader and hero to many. Further, while his successor Truman became increasingly less popular as his tenure progressed, this amendment as written specifically did not apply to him.
The passage of the 22nd Amendment often appears in history books as a kind of common sense moment, but I am interested in knowing more of the story. Besides this, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with it. While on the one hand term limits protect against the calcification of unhealthy leadership and tamps down cronyism and corruption, it seems an unfortunate reality that a person who is a skilled leader (especially if we are to face crisis or wartime) must step down simply because the calendar page has turned. We are at least in part a democracy, after all. Shouldn’t the people decide whether someone should have a third or fourth term with having to change the whole Constitution again?
But then of course there is this: There was once another (somewhat) democratically elected leader that came to power in 1933 and served until his death in 1945. A man beloved by his countryfolk for much of his time in office. A man who took advantage of his new position to consolidate his position and make sure that the democratic process would be subverted thereafter. A man who represented the worst of the accumulation of power.
A man named Adolf Hitler.
Though dictators can come to power in all sorts of ways in all sorts of places, something like term limits is but one of the safeguards we have to (hopefully) protect ourselves against such excess. Even so: is the 22nd Amendment necessary? I’ll admit I’m conflicted. What do you think?