In the age of terror, Americans are painfully aware of the vulnerabilities that come from living in a free and open society.
But what about the vulnerabilities arising out of our fixed, four-year presidential terms? Poor judgment and incompetence by a chief executive can bring a major corporation to its knees in short order. That's why boards reserve the right to fire CEOs at a moment's notice. So why do America's CEOs enjoy a free ride for four years, when so much more is at stake?
This is a question worth debating openly. After all, other cherished features of America's founding architecture – civil liberties chief among them – have been seriously reviewed or modified in the past six years. This erosion of citizens' rights has been matched by the simultaneous expansion of power in the executive branch. The justification for both trends: protecting America from terrorist attacks.
Might it not be wise to consider balancing these worrisome trends with mechanisms that would make it possible to remove from office even law-abiding presidents if they were deemed to be severely underperforming in the face of such threats?
To be sure, it's heretical even to consider tampering with the nation's political blueprint.
Part of the Founding Fathers' genius lay in their crafting of a system of checks and balances that included a stable chief executive role. Once elected, presidents get a four-year employment contract to lead the nation. That's 48 months of one person's imprint on foreign policy and national security. This contract – qualified only by the possibility of impeachment in the rare case of "high crimes and misdemeanors" – has undoubtedly served Americans well. It has provided the stability that many Western parliamentary systems – such as Italy's, where post-1945 governments collapse routinely – can only dream about.
Consider, for comparison, the corporate CEO's basic deal. Relative to their peers in other developed economies, CEOs of American companies enjoy a great deal of concentrated power, often combining the role of top executive and board chair. Other countries disapprove of this model, but US business culture deems a very strong chief executive as essential to getting difficult things done in the face of predictable resistance.
That said, American CEOs are regularly fired by their boards, far more frequently for underperformance than for impeachment-caliber legal transgressions. Boards keep powerful CEOs accountable for their performance by retaining the right to fire them at any time (though often with shamefully high severance packages).
Indeed, some observers say that Fortune 500 boards have become too trigger-happy with their CEOs. But as one long-experienced director noted a few years ago after witnessing a large company's abrupt demise, boards of an earlier era could afford to be more patient with CEOs because it used to take years for a company to deteriorate. In today's hyperkinetic business environment, however, a company's prospects can turn sour almost overnight – and certainly within a year. A conscientious board thus has no choice but to ask itself on an ongoing basis whether the company has the right CEO – and if not, to replace the incumbent swiftly, even if he or she is a fine human being.
With far more at stake in the political realm than in any corporation, we need to ask whether the contemporary global security environment is one in which it makes sense to hand newly elected presidents – of whatever party – four-year guaranteed tenure. One year, let alone four, is plenty of time for a president to cause a great deal of damage to the nation.
Fundamental institutional arrangements that have worked well over time should not be casually trifled with. But we have already disrupted a number of time-honored legal practices in the name of fighting terrorism more effectively, so that ship has already sailed. Should we not be taking a fresh look at our institutions more broadly, to ensure that they are well aligned with the most pressing challenges we face? The Constitution is intentionally very difficult to amend, so any reforms would only take place after broad consensus is achieved.
Of course, it's by no means clear that, on balance, America would be well served by unfixing the four-year term. Long-term critical challenges loom in other policy domains – Social Security, Medicare, and climate change, to name just three – where courageous presidents may have to sustain periods of great unpopularity to make any headway. Effective responses to such challenges may require a degree of insulation from short-term popular sentiment.
Still, when California Gov. Gray Davis was recalled by voters and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the sky didn't fall. Perhaps the sky wouldn't fall if presidents woke up every morning – and not just once every four years – knowing they were subject to removal for poor performance.