Q: I know Michelle probably would strangle him, but is there any chance Barack Obama could run for a third term? Does the 22nd Amendment limit a person to two terms or two consecutive terms?
Cathy Stoltz, of Belleville
A: Unless you can foment a grassroots ground swell to repeal the 22nd Amendment, I’m afraid you’re going to have to look for someone else to replace Mr. Trump. The amendment specifically states, “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice ... ” Period. End of story. Or most of it, at least.
The new restriction came soon after Franklin D. Roosevelt died April 12, 1945 — 82 days into his fourth term. Able to hide his failing health during the race, Roosevelt swamped Republican opponent Thomas Dewey in the Electoral College 432-99. But even while running a losing campaign, Dewey loudly proclaimed his support for a constitutional amendment that would limit presidents to two terms, saying, “Four terms, or 16 years, is the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed.”
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Soon after the 80th Congress convened on Jan. 3, 1947, Dewey’s campaign promise was fulfilled by the GOP-controlled House and Senate. A joint resolution on presidential term limitations was passed on March 21, 1947, and, by Feb. 27, 1951, 36 of the 48 states — the necessary three-fourths — had ratified the amendment. Except for then-sitting president Harry S. Truman, it has applied to every chief executive since.
Those who favored the amendment say it’s a tradition that should have been followed from the start. Even though his popularity was still high, George Washington voluntarily refused to run for a third term, saying he was tired and, even in the country’s earliest days, frustrated by the increasing partisan wrangling. Some historians say his writings and speeches indicate he was trying to set an example.
A free country “should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective Constitutional spheres” and avoid wielding power for selfish purposes, Washington said in his 1796 farewell address. “A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position.”
Even in 1940 as FDR was finishing up his second term, the no-third-term tradition remained strong. Roosevelt avoided saying he was running and, at the summer Democratic convention, Vice President Alben Barkley read a statement, approved by Roosevelt, that said, “The President has never had, and has not today, any desire or purpose to continue in the office of President, to be a candidate for that office, or to be nominated by the Convention for that office.”
But as historian Frank Freidel wrote, “The Democratic politicians so desperately needed Roosevelt that, despite a lack of private enthusiasm among a considerable part of them, he was able to exercise more effective control than before over the convention.” In fact, Freidel wrote, FDR had chosen Chicago as the convention site because of the power of Mayor Ed Kelly, and there had been no strong challengers.
According to historic accounts, a silence fell over the delegates when Barkley had finished his statement. Then over the loudspeakers came, “We want Roosevelt! We want Roosevelt!” The voice was that of Thomas Garry, superintendent of Chicago’s sanitation department, who was sitting in a basement room with a microphone waiting for just that moment. Not surprisingly, Roosevelt rolled up more than 92 percent of the delegates’ votes on the first ballot.
While many still decry this aberration in presidential longevity, some say it might be healthier for the nation to have a leader who can serve an unlimited number of terms. They point to Germany and Japan, among others, where leaders can serve as long as they are popular. They also point to a study by political scientists showing that states with governors who can run for two or more terms do better than other states. And they charge that a term-limited president is essentially a lame duck as soon as he takes office and can be blocked for four or eight years by an opposition Congress. That’s why, they say, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee wasn’t even considered by the Republican Congress.
“The 22nd Amendment does, and is designed to, thwart the popular will,” Andrew Rudalevige, a professor of government at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, told U.S. News and World Report last summer. “The framers were pretty clear that they wanted accountability to the public to be important to elected officials, and feared that a term-limited president would no longer be interested in serving the public good. They also – (Alexander) Hamilton especially – favored the virtues of stability and the accumulation of expertise.”
Even the Republicans had buyers remorse in 1960 when they realized that the still popular Dwight D. Eisenhower would be unable to run for a third term. Since then, many repeal attempts have been proposed, including by Sens. Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, but all have died in committee. In an interview with NBC’s Tom Brokaw as he left office, Ronald Reagan said he was going to fight for repeal, but the onset of Alzheimer’s may have precluded his efforts. Other proposals — to amend the law to two consecutive terms or, like the pope, allow Congress to grant a dispensation by supermajority vote — similarly have gone nowhere.
Some even argue that the current law does not shut the door on a third term. Although it remains constitutionally iffy, they suggest a two-term president could later be elected vice president and take over if the president dies. Moreover, they say the 22nd Amendment has no enforcement mechanism, so by the time someone would be elected to a third term and a legal battle winds its way through the courts, his or her term might be over.
But the entire argument might be moot. According to a 2016 Rasmussen poll, four out of five respondents said they favor the two-term limit. As a result, even though Obama was sailing along with a 60 percent approval rating late in his second term, only 30 percent of voters said they would vote to give him a third while 63 percent would not.
So although he boasted he could have won a third term, I wonder whether Obama might have empathized with Washington when the Father of Our Country said, “Every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome.”
Which two states voted against the 22nd Amendment?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: When 39 counties broke away from Virginia at the beginning of the Civil War to form their own state, they initially proposed the name of Kanawha, which was the name of a major river running through the area. It’s an Iroquois word meaning “waterway” or “canoe way.” But deciding that it might be confused with Kanawha County, they finally settled on West Virginia.