In 1947, Sen. Harley Kilgore, D-W.Va., condemned a proposed constitutional amendment that would restrict presidents to two terms. “The executive’s effectiveness will be seriously impaired,” Kilgore argued on the Senate floor, “as no one will obey and respect him if he knows that the executive cannot run again.”
I’ve been thinking about Kilgore’s comments as I watch President Barack Obama, whose approval rating has dipped to 37 percent in CBS News polling — the lowest ever for him — during the troubled rollout of his health-care reform. Many of Obama’s fellow Democrats have distanced themselves from the reform and from the president. Even former president Bill Clinton has said that Americans should be allowed to keep the health insurance they have.
Or consider the reaction to the Iran nuclear deal. Regardless of his political approval ratings, Obama could expect Republican senators such as Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona to attack the agreement. But if Obama could run again, would he be facing such fervent objections from Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J.?
Probably not. Democratic lawmakers would worry about provoking the wrath of a president who could be re-elected. Thanks to term limits, though, they’ve got little to fear.
Nor does Obama have to fear the voters, which might be the scariest problem of all. If he chooses, he could simply ignore their will. And if the people wanted him to serve another term, why shouldn’t they be allowed to award him one?
That was the argument of our first president, who is often held up as the father of term limits. In fact, George Washington opposed them. “I can see no propriety in precluding ourselves from the service of any man who, in some great emergency, shall be deemed universally most capable of serving the public,” Washington wrote in a much-quoted letter to the Marquis de Lafayette.
Washington stepped down after two terms, establishing a pattern that would stand for more than a century. But he made clear that he was doing so because the young republic was on solid footing, not because his service should be limited in any way.
The first president to openly challenge the two-term tradition was Theodore Roosevelt, who ran for a third term as president in 1912 on the Bull Moose ticket. When he stepped down in 1908, Roosevelt pledged not to seek a third term; reminded of this promise in 1912, he said that he had meant he would not seek a “third consecutive term.” The New York Times called Roosevelt’s explanation a “pitiful sophistication,” and the voters sent Woodrow Wilson to the White House.
Only in 1940, amid what George Washington might have called a “great emergency,” did a president successfully stand for a third term. Citing the outbreak of war overseas and the Depression at home, Democrats renominated Franklin D. Roosevelt. They pegged him for a fourth time in 1944 despite his health problems, which were serious enough to send him to his grave the following year.
To Republicans, these developments echoed the fascist trends enveloping Europe. “You will be serving under an American totalitarian government before the long third term is finished,” warned Wendell Wilkie, Roosevelt’s opponent in 1940. Once the two-term tradition was broken, Wilkie added, nobody could put it back together. “If this principle dies, it will be dead forever,” he said.
That’s why the GOP moved to codify it in the Constitution in 1947, when a large Republican majority took over Congress. Ratified by the states in 1951, the 22nd Amendment was an “undisguised slap at the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” wrote Clinton Rossiter, one of the era’s leading political scientists. It also reflected “a shocking lack of faith in the common sense and good judgment of the people,” Rossiter said.
He was right. Every Republican in Congress voted for the amendment, while its handful of Democratic supporters were mostly legislators who had broken with FDR and his New Deal. When they succeeded in limiting the presidency to two terms, they limited democracy itself.
“I think our people are to be safely trusted with their own destiny,” Sen. Claude Pepper, D-Fla., argued in 1947. “We do not need to protect the American people with a prohibition against a president whom they do not wish to elect; and if they wanted to elect him, have we the right to deny them the power?”
It’s time to put that power back where it belongs. When Ronald Reagan was serving his second term, some Republicans briefly floated the idea of removing term limits so he could run again. The effort went nowhere, but it was right on principle. Barack Obama should be allowed to stand for re-election just as citizens should be allowed to vote for — or against — him. Anything less diminishes our leaders and ourselves.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. His books include “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”