How Many Terms Should a President Serve?

Putin, FishingThe New York Times reported today on the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin, by adding his name to the parliamentary election list for December, may lead the legislature following the end of his second presidential term. The Russian Constitution prohibits members of the Federal Assembly from holding office in both the House (Duma) and Senate (Federation Council) concurrently, as well as from serving as local and federal deputies simultaneously. Apparently, and you legal types are welcome to comment here, this prohibition does not extend to two simultaneously-held federal offices — either that, or Putin would resign from office before assuming the other position to keep the move constitutional.

Furthermore, the Russian Constitution states, “No one person shall hold the office of President of the Russian Federation for more than two terms in succession.” This, as the article points out, would allow Putin or anyone to return to the presidency after a term hiatus. The speculation that Putin may simply stay for an unconstitutional third term or the new theory that he may obey the letter but not the spirit of the Constitution by remaining in a high-profile political position until he can legally resume the reins of federal power are used to point to the underdevelopment of democracy in Russia.

The U.S. set the standard of the two-term presidency, yet this became law rather than custom by Constitutional amendment only in 1951. The movement was set into motion by a Republican Congress following the fourth term of FDR. Interestingly, Wikipedia cites two Republican presidents (Eisenhower and Reagan) who supported repealing the amendment and notes that Bill Clinton supported changing the amendment to allow for a return to the presidency following an intervening term — which, you may note, is the “loophole” existing in the Russian Constitution.

All this sets up the title of the post: how many terms should a president serve? If you support a two-term limit, would you consider allowing a re-election following at least a term hiatus? Or is the consolidation of power in one person (or constellation of people) simply too dangerous for democracy? Is there a better way to balance these concerns while limiting the impotency of the president during his or her “lame duck” term?

— written by poetloverrebelspy

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8 Responses to How Many Terms Should a President Serve?

  1. Dana says:

    With the immediate acknowledgement that I haven’t done much research into this, and it isn’t really my field, some thoughts off the top of my head:

    I’m not a huge fan of the two-term system. It seems like, at least in the US, that the president spends his first term not really doing much except more politicking. Those 4 years essentially end up being an extension of his pre-first-term campaign, because he’s still trying to get reelected for the second one. I suppose one could argue that this provides some sort of check on the president, but we’re supposed to have other systems of checks and balances in place already. So mostly, the first term seems wasted, and nothing gets done. And then, if the president does get reelected, that’s another 4 years of the same person, except this time he’ll presumably feel more free to actually do stuff.

    There are a number of countries that have done away with the idea that any president should serve more than one term at all. Mexico is the one that leaps first to mind, with each president serving one six-year term. Regardless of what I might think of Mexican politics, I think this is a pretty good idea. The president there knows he’ll never get to be president again, so he’ll be prepared to start doing his job right away, and if he’s unpopular, well, at the end of his term, he’s gone. He’s also not allowed to campaign for or endorse anyone running to be his successor.

    I don’t think presidents should be allowed to serve indefinitely. Even if the president is a good one, it creates an atmosphere conducive to creating a “democratic” dictatorship.

    I’m certainly not sure what the ideal solution should be. It’s an interesting question.

  2. TheGnat says:

    Bah, you people and your presidents! Of course, the whole “4-year election campaign” thing is a fairly recent result of the utter extravagance of American politics.

    Canada has quite possibly the weirdest and yet best (I think) way of handling the top dog position: the Governor General (appointed by the British Monarch who is generally quite clueless about Canadian politics, and who maintains their post for only 5 years) appoints a PM from someone holding a position in the House of Commons (usually) from the party that has the most seats in the House. There are various ways in which this person can repeatedly given the position, or ousted.

    Up sides to this rather bizarre, complicated, and based more on convention than the constitution system? Campaigns are more about party platforms than cults of personalities, people need to do their job or they’re out, and it isn’t left up to an election that can be rigged.

    Oh, and a spurt of rare patriotism: Chretien and Trudeau kicked ass, and Canada’s already had 3 women as Governor General and 1 woman as PM! HA! Take that you backwards yanks!!!

    <.<

    Oh yeah, Japan also has an interesting way of handling it: the Diet has to come to a decision together, and s/he can be ousted by a no-confidence vote. And resigns every election of the House. If his party is the majority again, he’s usually back. ^^

  3. laikal says:

    This is an exceptionally interesting question. I used to be all for the two-term limit that we sort of assume is the default (us silly yanks). However, it has a lot of, ahem, “interesting” incentive effects (that you’ve noted above). Only in the last couple of weeks have I really thought through some of the longer-term side effects of term limits, such as dis-incentive-izing developing a long view and fostering absurd party loyalism. I haven’t really had a chance to study the matter, but it appears on the surface as though our longest-serving politicians are the ones the accomplish more, and in a less partisan manner.

    So the question is then: how to we get fresh blood into the political system while still encouraging politicians to make long-horizon decisions and co-operate outside of the party hierarchy. I’m not sure what the proper balance is between term limits and power consolidation, as there is a clear tension there. A representative who is well entrenched and not term-limited is certainly in a position to wreak move havoc if corrupt; or, in a less-well-developed democracy (like, say, Russia) is in a position to subvert the electoral process more efficiently; but here again I have too little empirical knowledge to really hazard a guess as to where the line is.

    Interestingly, Lawrence Lessig (he of intellectual property law greatness) has decided to return to these sorts of questions about politics and political systems (he began his career as a constitutional lawyer).

    That’s probably enough directionless rambling from me for the moment ;).

    I will say this, though: Putin scares the crap out of me.

  4. […] be removing presidential term limits and increasing the current term from six to seven years. (See Hilary’s post on presidential term limits for further discussion of that particular issue.) Other reforms would increase presidential […]

  5. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Here’s another article from the NYTimes with more speculation about Putin’s potential next steps.

  6. Mike says:

    I’m late to the party, but here’s a little subjective historical data. Dana, I agree that the first term is mostly used for politicking, but as a result, it’s also the first term when all the big stuff gets done.

    The question, of course, is whether this is the case because the first term is when the president passes all the great ideas that first won over the electorate (in which case term limits might be good), or because the president is motivated by a desire to accomplish something in time for the second presidential campaign (in which term limits might be bad).

    MODERN TWO-TERM PRESIDENTS
    their biggest accomplishments, I think

    FDR:
    Social Security, National Labor Relations Act, Securities and Exchange Commission, Prohibition repeal, Federal Trade Commission, Tennessee Valley Authority – first term
    gets Supreme Court to legalize all of the above – second term
    Lend-Lease Act, winning World War II – third term

    Truman:
    atomic bombs, Cold War, Berlin airlift, integrating military – first term
    NATO, firing Macarthur – second term

    Eisenhower:
    interstate highways – first term

    Johnson:
    (remembering that his first term was one year long and he was eligible for a third)
    Civil Rights Act – first term
    Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Vietnam escalation – second term

    Nixon:
    overhaul of Supreme Court, peace with China, Vietnam pullback, Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Water Act – first term
    social security for disabled – second term

    Reagan:
    1981 tax cuts, Social Security tax hike, immigration reform, end of detente, military buildup – first term
    1986 tax reform, immigration reform, Gorbachev talks – second term

    Clinton:
    NAFTA, Oslo Accords, peace in Bosnia, balanced budget, welfare reform, telecom reform – first term
    victory in Kosovo – second term

    Bush:
    2001-03 tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, Patriot Act, Afghanistan war, Iraq war – first term

  7. Mike says:

    Oh, add the GI Bill to Roosevelt’s third term.

  8. poetloverrebelspy says:

    So the question is not, will the second term be lame (as it almost universally is). The question is rather, should we put up with the second term because it makes the first term possible, or, if we eliminate the second term, will the first term become the new second term, with little getting accomplished?

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