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THE SECOND TERM CURSE
Oct. 30, 2005
In 1797, George Washington quietly returned to his Mount Vernon home
after completing his second term as President of the United States.
Washington could have easily been elected for a third term, however,
chose to quietly step aside, creating the tradition of American
Presidents serving only twice in office.
This precedent stood for a century and a half, until, much to the
chagrin of the Republican Party, FDR decided to run for a third term in
1940. After Roosevelt’s death in 1945, the Republicans began almost
immediately to work on amending the Constitution to translate
Washington’s precedent into law. Whether the Republicans’ motivation was
one of trying to prevent a de facto “American aristocracy” where
Presidents would rule for life, or merely an attempt to break the
Democratic Party’s domination of the political landscape is a subject of
debate to this day. Nonetheless, beginning with its passage by the
Congress in 1947, and final ratification by three fourths of the states
in 1951, the 22^nd Amendment was born.
Respect for the tradition set by Washington aside, it is time to reopen
the discussion of the merits of the 22^nd Amendment in light of the 50
years of political turmoil it has created.
The record of Presidential second terms since the ratification of the
22^nd Amendment is a dreary one. Johnson declined to run for a second
term due to the political fallout of the Vietnam War. Nixon resigned
under threat of impeachment. Reagan was mired down with the Iran Contra
Affair. And, Clinton was hobbled by his numerous personal and political
scandals, which led to his eventual impeachment. Now, continuing the new
American Presidential tradition, President Bush is caught up in his own
series of embarrassments and scandals that might end his second term
political agenda before it actually begins.
The affects on our nation as a result of these scandals have been
disastrous. In addition to the weakening of the public’s faith in the
office of President, and our political institutions on general, there
has been a dramatic decrease in the success of reelected Presidents in
their second terms. Johnson’s plans for his “Great Society” programs
came to a virtual standstill in his second term, Nixon’s diplomatic
accomplishments with the Soviet Union and China were almost permanently
derailed, and Reagan and Clinton will be remembered by what they did in
their first terms far more than their last.
Why has every reelected President since Eisenhower had a scandal plagued
second term? Why have previously effective Presidents seen their
political momentum evaporate in the face of partisan gridlock? And, why
have reelected Presidents been at times more concerned about their
political “legacies” than actually doing what is right?
The “why” is that the 22^nd Amendment robs Presidents of the one thing
that made them successful in the first place: the fact they can be
reelected. Do you think Republicans would have pursued Clinton as
vigorously if they knew that he could use their failure to remove him
from office as a rallying point for his supporters? Would Iran-Contra
gone on as long as it did if “The Great Communicator” was stumping for a
third term? No. Simply because these Presidents had the personal
magnetism and popularity with the general public to not just weather
these political storms, but turn them back against their detractors.
The reality of American politics is apparent. If the people love a
President they are going to love him pretty much no matter what he does.
This is why feminists stood by largely silent in the face of Clinton’s
philandering, and why conservatives tolerate Bush’s big government
spending programs. When any popular elected leader is under partisan
attack, their supporters will naturally rally to their defense, and, in
most cases, translate that support to the ballot box.
Clinton and Reagan would have both been elected to third terms despite
any of the accusations against them. And, the opposing parties would
have both suffered set backs as a result of the attacks on these popular
leaders. In short, most of these scandals, and their subsequent
political turmoil would either not have occurred, or been of drastically
smaller in proportion, if these second term Presidents had the option of
With the power to appeal to the electorate stolen away, the 22^nd
Amendment has made every popular President a lamb duck the day after
their reelection. The absence of the political consequences of attacking
a popular leader has created an environment in Washington of scandal
mongering where anything, no matter how small or large, is seen as an
opportunity by opposition parties to do what they could not do at the
polls; stop the agendas of popular Presidents.
Presidents are reelected for a reason. The majority of the people like
what a President has done and want it to continue. If anything, whether
it is a tradition established by the father of our country, or an
Amendment to the Constitution, stands in the way of the will of the
people and interferes with the successful operation of government, then
it must be reevaluated, and if necessary, repealed.
© Justin Darr
Justin Darr is a freelance writer living in the Philadelphia area with
his wife and twin children. He can be read widely on the Internet and in
publications across North America and in Europe.
Justin Darr is a staff writer for The New Media Alliance, and proud
member of the MoveOff Network.