Paul Pillar

The Ultimate Term Limit

After the Democratic defeat in the mid-term election I welcomed the idea that President Obama, facing dim prospects for making much progress on his domestic agenda, would focus his energies primarily on foreign policy problems. I further suggested, recognizing the political liabilities of trying to make waves on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that Mr. Obama may have to do some private soul-searching about which is more important: re-election or the positive legacy of an accomplished, albeit one-term, president. Patrick Caddell and Douglas Schoen have now taken this idea farther in recommending that the president announce that he will not run for a second term. The logic behind their recommendation is sound:

Quite simply, given our political divisions and economic problems, governing and campaigning have become incompatible. Obama can and should dispense with the pollsters, the advisers, the consultants and the strategists who dissect all decisions and judgments in terms of their impact on the president's political prospects.

Given that Caddell and Schoen have been two of those pollsters, advisers, consultants, and strategists, this seems to be advice worth listening to. It is well-intentioned advice. Caddell and Schoen have worked for Democratic presidents of the past. They do not want Barack Obama to be defeated; they want him—as do I—to be a great, transformative president.

Although Obama is the current incumbent and his political predicament is a current topic of discussion, the logic involved is by no means unique to Obama. So I will run with the idea even farther and make this recommendation: that Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, as revised by the 22nd Amendment, be further amended to provide that the President of the United States be elected to a six-year term, without possibility of re-election.

This is hardly a far-out idea. It corresponds to the rules for presidential elections in Mexico, for example. It would embody the principle that the overriding consideration in how the chief executive performs his or her duties should be the good of the country, not the good of a re-election campaign.

Some of the likely objections to this proposal correspond to some of the reactions to Caddell and Schoen's recommendation to Obama. There is a tendency to label anyone who does not face another election as a lame duck and somehow weaker for it. But shedding the many dependencies on others that are part of an effort to be re-elected while retaining all the powers of the presidency is a formula for more strength, not weakness. Moreover, if the argument involved were valid it would apply to the entire second term of two-term presidents. A different possible objection is that six years is a long time to be stuck with a president who turns out to be bad news. But we already are stuck with all of them for at least four years, and it is not unknown for a bad news president to be re-elected anyway for four more.

Enactment of this proposal would preclude the possible abuses, which we saw during Richard Nixon's presidency, that derive from the awesome powers of government being in the hands of those whose primary concern may be to win an election. It would eliminate the other ways, less obviously abusive but still detrimental, in which the making and execution of policy in the executive branch is shaped by re-election ambitions. And it would free our presidents to become great presidents by substantially reducing the disabling weight of domestic political concerns.