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Two Terms Are Plenty

By Reo ChristensenReo Christensen is adjunct professor of political science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. / February 8, 1989



RONALD REAGAN's blast at the 22nd Amendment, which restricts presidents to two terms, aligns him with liberal opinion on this issue. Interpreting this amendment as a rebuke to their hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt, most liberals have long agreed with Mr. Reagan's position that the amendment improperly limits the voters' right to choose whomever they wish for president. Most political scientists seem to agree, although repeated polls have shown strong public support for the two-term limit. A strong case can be made that the public is right in approving a constitutional provision which formalized the two-term tradition that prevailed through most of American history.

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Experience has shown that the great majority of presidents largely exhaust their stock of ideas during their first term. After seeking reelection based on their record rather than their vision of the future, victors normally begin their second term without a significant agenda. Certainly this was true of Reagan's second term. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson largely emptied their policy arsenal during their first four years; their second terms proved to be much less fruitful.

Even before two terms expire, weariness tends to set in. The initial sense of excitement, 'elan, and adventure fades; officials begin dropping out or exploring the prospects for post-administration careers.

Administration flexibility also declines as presidents adopt a defensive posture, becoming increasingly protective of policies with which they are identified, even if flaws develop. New ideas are less welcome and the forces of inertia grow stronger.

But won't the voters recognize these negative developments and reject a president whose energy and creativity are waning?

Maybe and maybe not. Roosevelt's health was failing rapidly during the 1944 campaign but the public didn't know. His staff and doctors carefully concealed the truth from the voters. General Eisenhower could doubtless have won a third term even though his administration was showing unmistakable signs of political exhaustion during its latter years. The vitality and fresh perspectives of a John F. Kennedy would have been denied had Ike run again.

Yes, the amendment does betray a lack of faith in the judgment of the people. But if the people mistrust themselves under certain circumstances, maybe we should trust their misgivings.

The very existence of the Supreme Court, whose members have a lifetime tenure, also reflects a mistrust of the public's unvarying commitment to the Constitution and to individual liberties. The six-year term for senators suggests that they can be more statesmanlike if they don't have to worry about every gust of public opinion. Vox populi is not vox Dei. And our system of checks and balances has served us well.

Finally, does the 22nd Amendment create a ``lame duck'' presidency, especially in the last two years of a president's second term? Not necessarily. If a president can present a well-conceived program, one consistent with perceived public needs and priorities, Congress would be unlikely to spurn it.

Ronald Reagan is hardly a profound student of history or of public philosophy. He is a visceral figure who trusts his hunches. In this case, his hunch deserves to be greeted with a very fishy eye.