The past 30 years have been marked by occasional grumbling from one American political party, and celebration from the other - depending on who occupies the White House - about the disqualification of a president after eight years of service.
For much of the nation’s history, a presidency could last indefinitely. But since the Eisenhower administration of 1953-’61, presidential terms have been limited to a single re-election, due to the 22nd Amendment.
“Section 1. No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.
“Section 2. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several states within seven years from the date of its submission to the states by the Congress.”
With the Great Depression, World War II and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four-term presidency finally in the rearview mirror, there was concern among Republicans – and even some Democrats – that it took death to get FDR out of office.
The 22nd Amendment was introduced quickly into the Republican-controlled 80th Congress. The House of Representatives passed the resolution, 285-121, with 47 Democrats supporting, on Feb. 7, 1947. The Senate version originally called for ratification by state conventions to register public opinion. However, the provision was removed before the bill hit the Senate floor. The amendment was passed 59-23, with 16 Democrats in favor, on March 12.
Ratification was achieved with the approval of Minnesota on Feb. 27, 1951. Overall, 41 states ratified, and five took no action. Oklahoma and Massachusetts rejected the 22nd Amendment.
George Washington is often credited for establishing the two-term custom, but there is no evidence that he believed in term limits.
“The Framers of the original Constitution refused to impose term limits on either the office of the president or members of Congress,” said Dr. Daniel Savage, chair of the Department of Geography, Political Science and Sociology at Northeastern State University. “Nothing in Washington’s speeches or writings indicate that he considered his retirement as setting a precedent for future presidents. In his farewell address, he simply refers to his weariness and desire to return to private life.”
Though they did not impose term limits, some of the Framers weren’t against them. Thomas Jefferson might be more accurately regarded as the president who set the two-term custom, because he wrote and publicly stated that it was a good idea.
“There is historical evidence that the Founding Fathers believed a two-term limit would serve as protection against our country becoming a monarchy,” said State Sen. Mike Brown. “In 1807, Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘If some termination to the services of the chief Magistrate be not fixed by the Constitution, or supplied by practice, his office, nominally four years, will in fact become for life.’ Most of our early presidents followed the two-term principal.”
Adherence to a quiet exit after two terms started to slip after the Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant quietly ran for the Republican nomination in 1880. He received the most delegates at the party convention, but failed to earn a majority. After 36 rounds of voting produced only deadlocks, the delegates of other candidates compromised and supported James Garfield.
Grover Cleveland, who served two non-consecutive terms, tried for re-election in 1896. However, the country was still stinging from the Panic of 1893, dooming his incumbency.
Theodore Roosevelt took an unlikely try at a third term as a third-party candidate in 1912. An assassination attempt on Oct. 14 left him wounded and unable to finish his campaign, though he still earned 88 electoral votes.
The victor in 1912, Woodrow Wilson, blocked the nomination of his Treasury secretary and son-in-law William Gibbs McAdoo at the 1920 Democratic Convention. Seemingly detached from reality, Wilson hoped to gain the nomination by gumming the gears of the convention. Though acknowledged as a competent president by many historians, Wilson endured a calamitous 1919 that included failure to secure U.S. membership in the League of Nations, a botched demobilization of troops returning from the war in Europe, and a series of strokes.
There have been calls to repeal the 22nd Amendment since the Reagan administration. Supporters of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have in turn claimed the amendment was passed spitefully by Republicans after losing the White House to FDR for 12 years, and pushes adept and popular people out of office. Many Americans believe voters should be free to elect anyone president as many times as they please.
During his second term, Reagan expressed dissatisfaction that the executive office held little sway over congressional members –particularly opposition Democrats – during a second term, because there was no danger of the president’s being re-elected.
“In thinking about it more and more, I have come to the conclusion that the 22nd Amendment was a mistake,” Reagan said in an interview during his second term. “Shouldn’t the people have the right to vote for someone as many times as they want to vote for him? They send senators up there for 30 or 40 years, congressmen the same.”
Several members of Congress have introduced legislation to repeal the 22nd Amendment, or allow further service through non-consecutive terms or by supermajority congressional approval. None of the bills have survived committee.
Though opponents of the 22nd Amendment often blame the Republican Party for limiting the service of presidents, the power struggle between the executive and legislative branches made presidential term limits a congressional hobbyhorse of no party affiliation from the birth of the republic.
“There were around 270 proposed amendments to the Constitution between 1789 and 1950 that would have limited presidential terms to one or two,” Savage said. “Many proposals would have extended a president’s term to six or seven years, but allowed only one such term.”