End Presidential Term Limits

By Jonathan Zimmerman, Published: November 28

Washington Post – 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 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 (S.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.) 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 reelected. 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.


  1. “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,”

    Back in the day when it was fashionable to be well read and up on current events not to mention they were all on the same page of freedom. We now have capable and able progressive leaders and an ignorant mass.

  2. Future Democrat Voters?

    This has been quite a year for captive chimpanzees in the United States, with one federal agency taking steps to retire most chimps owned by the government and another proposing to classify all chimps as endangered, an action that would throw up new obstacles to experiments even on privately owned chimps.

    Activists have relished their successes, while some scientists have deplored restrictions on the use of the animals, which have played a crucial role in some biomedical research, such as work on hepatitis C vaccines.

    All the activity so far has focused on the welfare of the chimpanzees. Now, an animal rights group has heightened the crusade by taking legal action to try to establish legal rights for chimpanzees, something far more controversial.

    The Nonhuman Rights Project, led by Steven M. Wise, filed papers on Monday in State Supreme Court in Fulton County, N.Y., demanding that courts in New York recognize a chimpanzee known as Tommy as a legal person, with a limited right to liberty. The petition asks the court to remove him from his owners and place him in a sanctuary.

    Tommy is a privately owned chimp in Gloversville that the group says “is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used-trailer lot.” The group said it intended to file suit later this week on behalf of three more chimps in New York, also demanding their freedom.

    Two of the chimpanzees are believed to be owned by the New Iberia Research Center, at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, but are housed at Stony Brook University for a study of locomotion. The fourth is owned by Carmen Presti of Niagara Falls, according to the rights project, who runs the Primate Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization that displays apes.

    Patrick C. Lavery, the owner of Circle L Trailer Sales in Gloversville, where Tommy lives, said he had heard about the petition from reporters’ telephone calls. He said from his home in Florida that he had complied with all state and federal regulations, that Tommy had a spacious cage “with tons of toys,” and that he had been trying to place him in sanctuaries, but that they had no room. He said he had rescued the chimp from a bad situation.

    He said of the group filing the petition, “If they were to see where this chimp lived for the first 30 years of his life, they would jump up and down for joy about where he is now.” Mr. Lavery said he had not seen or been officially notified of the petition.

    The use of habeas corpus actions is a time-honored legal strategy for addressing unlawful imprisonment of human beings. Mr. Wise, who has written about the use of habeas corpus in the antislavery movement, makes an argument in a 70-plus-page memo rich with legal, scientific and philosophical references that being human is not essential to having rights. He argues that captive chimps are, in fact, enslaved, and that the same principles apply to their cases as to those of humans who were enslaved.

    “This petition asks this court to issue a writ recognizing that Tommy is not a legal thing to be possessed by respondents, but rather is a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned,” the court filing says.

    David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law, who teaches animal law but is not associated with the rights project or the legal action, said he was familiar with Mr. Wise’s arguments, which he called “a serious legal strategy.” He said such a strategy had not been tried before in the United States. “It is unique,” Mr. Favre said.

    He added, however, that he was not commenting on the strategy’s chances of success.

    Chimps were granted certain legal rights by the Spanish Parliament in 2008, and efforts have been made in other countries to give them rights.

    Mr. Wise is not asking the courts to declare the chimps equivalent to human beings. But in New York, animals are considered legal persons to allow them to be beneficiaries of trusts, Mr. Wise said. (In a similar way, a corporation is also considered a legal person.) Because the rights group has set up a trust for all four chimps, they are already legal persons, he argues.

    He also marshals evidence from various scientists that a chimpanzee has qualities, including awareness of self, past and future, that should provide it with a right to bodily liberty.

    The request is not for the chimps to be set completely free, either in Africa or New York, but to be moved to one of the eight sanctuaries in the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.

    There are a number of facilities, like the one in Niagara Falls, that call themselves sanctuaries, but are not members of the alliance.

    “Our goal is, very simply, to breach the legal wall that separates all humans from all nonhuman animals,” the Nonhuman Rights Project said in an announcement of the suits on its website. “Once this wall is breached, the first nonhuman animals on earth will gain legal ‘personhood’ and finally get their day in court — a day they so clearly deserve.”

  3. Thought for today:

    “Treason doth never prosper; what’s the reason?
    For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

  4. The Progressives should understand any attempt to ram through a means for keeping Obama in office for another term will likely be treated as treason, and spark an open civil war. The country has had enough of this oaf. He’s done enough damage. Even a tick drops off the dog after it’s full!

  5. Barack Obama should be allowed to stand for re election

    They didn’t have a communist president or revolution in progress, institutionalized vote fraud and electronic voting.

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