Abolish presidential term limits
NEW YORK — The people – and the experts – have spoken: It's time to change course in Iraq. But it still doesn't seem as though President Bush really heard them.
And why should he, really? Under the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, Mr. Bush is barred from seeking a third term of office. So he doesn't have to worry about his dreadful poll numbers, November's disastrous congressional elections, or anything else. Come January 2009, he's history.
That's why we need to let Mr. Bush – and all future presidents – run as many times as they'd like.
As Bush admitted, his party took a "thumpin' " in the midterm elections. Since then, however, he has done very little to alter US policies in Iraq. He turned a deaf ear to the Iraq Study Group (ISG), which called for a gradual withdrawal of US ground forces and a diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria. In private, Bush reportedly derided the study with profanity; in public, he continues to insist that the US will achieve "victory" in Iraq.
And while Bush says he's considering "all options" in Iraq, he refuses to be "rushed." After the ISG report was published Dec. 6, he announced that he wouldn't offer anything new until after the Christmas holidays. Then, just before Christmas, the White House began talking about a troop "surge," which some top military officials reportedly oppose. So if you were looking for a wiser Iraq policy in your stocking ... too bad.
True, Bush did fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But at this month's farewell ceremony for Mr. Rumsfeld, Bush continued to mouth the absurd pieties that voters rejected in November. Under Rumsfeld's watch, Bush declared, "the United States military helped the Iraqi people establish a constitutional democracy in the heart of the Middle East, a watershed event in the story of freedom."
You can't have democracy, or freedom, without the rule of law. And that's precisely what has collapsed in Iraq, as the American voters realized.
But America's bizarrely complacent commander-in-chief insists that he's not that worried about Iraq, the voters, or anything else. "I must tell you, I'm sleeping a lot better than people would assume," Bush recently told People magazine.
Does anyone believe that Bush would sleep so soundly if he were standing for reelection? No way. Of course, we have no idea what he would actually do. But it's fair to presume that he'd do something besides repeating the same smug bromides that brought the United States to this impasse in the first place.
America's early presidents established a two-term tradition, fearing that a leader who served too long would evolve into a dictator or king. But they were wrong. Franklin Roosevelt was elected four times, between 1932 and 1944, when he rallied the nation during the Great Depression and then led it toward victory in World War II. Even stalwart Republicans such as Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan – hardly FDR's ideological soul mates – have declared him one of America's greatest presidents.
In 1947, after Roosevelt died, a new GOP majority in Congress pushed through a two-term amendment to the Constitution; four years later, it was ratified by the states. Once they won back the White House in 1952, however, Republicans started to doubt the wisdom of their handiwork.
"The United States ought to be able to choose for its president anybody it wants, regardless of the number of terms he has served," Dwight Eisenhower said on the eve of his 1956 reelection. "I have got the utmost faith in the long-term common sense of the American people."
This same common sense led the American people to reject three of the past five presidents who sought reelection: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush. So it's hardly clear that removing the two-term limit would spawn an "imperial presidency" or "leaders-for-life," as some Americans argue.
Indeed, as Eisenhower sensed, term limits reflect a loss of faith in democracy itself. If we believe in a government for and by the people, we should allow everyone – including Bush – to run for America's highest office. That would make the presidency less imperial, not more so, because presidents who were eligible for reelection would be more likely to heed the people who chose them.
With Democrats assuming majority power next month, Congress has a fresh opportunity to make things right. The new House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, has proposed a repeal of presidential term limits in every session since 1985. Now he may have the political muscle to get it passed.
The rest would be up to the states, at least 38 of which have to ratify any amendment to the Constitution to make it official. Fifty-five years ago, they made a big mistake by restricting presidents to two terms. It's time to give them – and the American people – another opportunity. Are you listening, Mr. President? If the public could vote for you again, perhaps you would.
• Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century."