Historian at New York University Jonathan Zimmerman brings us the latest Progressive dream: ending term limits on the president. The passage of the 22nd Amendment in 1947 was a direct response to the four terms Franklin Delano Roosevelt eeked out thanks to the American entrance into World War II. The Roosevelt presidents were the only men arrogant enough to break with the tradition set by George Washington of the president serving two terms.
Zimmerman points out that Washington himself was opposed to term limits to negate this historical precedent. He then argues the line of repealing the 22nd Amendment on the grounds that it disempowers a president in his second term, by forcing legislators to abandon unpopular presidents in the middle of their administrations. He conversely argues that presidents might then take it upon themselves to take unconstitutional and unilateral actions against the will of the public. He uses Senator Claude Pepper of Florida to great purpose, “I think our people are to be safely trusted with their own destiny…[w]e 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?”
These are all good arguments. Why should the people not be allowed to elect whom they wish? I would take that argument to its logical conclusion and ask why minor parties are excluded from debates and ballots around the nation? If you believe this point, Professor Zimmerman, are you prepared to pen a a few lines in the Washington Post to the effect that people should be able to elect whom they wish from any party without obstruction by the two major parties?
I would submit that the division of the body politic into factions (political parties) was the primary concern of Washington in his farewell address. The control of access to, and the organs of elective office, as well as over the Fourth Estate makes the political party a primary reason, and along with it the political dynasties that develop through them, that term limits are needed across the spectrum of federal service.
His argument concerning the natural inclination of a president to circumvent Congress by executive fiat is also a valid, and I would suggest pressing, concern. But this is why having men dedicated to republican principles is important. Congress long since should have stomped the brakes on the “Imperial Presidency” a Schlesinger coined it. From the very beginning of the Progressive period — represented by President Obama, for whom this screed is penned to support — legislators of Progressive thought in both parties, have abused their authority and overstepped their Constitutional limits. This is something Washington — and the other Founders — would have decried. Congress could very easily cut funding to programs or impeach the president for misuse of power, were they not locked into partisan support or opposition for the president.
More importantly, the block on presidential aspirations to power were destroyed with the 17th Amendment and the direct election of Senators, which shifted the balance of power from the states to the federal government. Prior to this senators were representatives of the individual state governments for a reason — to prevent the sort of overreach we have been seeing since 1903. I might be willing to consider the repeal of the 22nd Amendment if it were accompanied by the repeal of the 17th.
As to his assertion that politicians abandon presidents in their second term, hampering their agendas, I would point out that having an agenda was a rare object of a president, outside of enriching their political friends. Polk had the stated goal of uniting the continent into one nation, and I would suggest abused his authority to do so by fomenting conflict in California. Lincoln’s agenda caused the deaths of half a million Americans. Theodore Roosevelt’s locked the United States into the imperial game, and Taft likewise moved the power from the states to the federal government. Wilson embroiled us in a war that was of no concern to the United States. Franklin Roosevelt’s policies cemented the federal government as the primary agency of power and began the inexorable slide toward bureaucratic bloat and sloth, a slide hastened by Johnson and Nixon both. Bush and Obama have increased the power of the security apparatus to dangerous levels.
The president should be actively looking to enforce and protect the constitutional limits placed on the government for good reason — to prevent the abuse of power by men of power and wealth. Perhaps a president should not be the person directing the national agenda, but the people’s representatives, who are much closer to their constituents. With a constituency of 307million people, a president has almost no incentive to respect the wishes of the people, and when a political party holds both houses of Congress and the White House, they are even less inclined to do so. The creation of the TSA, the passage of the PATRIOT Act, and the Affordable Care Act were all passed over a majority of disapproval.
I would agree with Zimmerman on principle. The people should have the government they want, but they also should be saved from the tyranny of the majority and the “well-intentioned” minority. However, in the cold reality of a dual party system rigged by a political and technocratic “elite” looking to rule as aristocrats, rather than to represent the interests of their constituency; of a federal government that has been unrestrained by the creation of the income tax, a national bank that can hide the expense of government (but no longer), and the direct election of senators; of ideologically-driven “leaders”, I submit that giving these groups more power to ignore the wishes of the American people and strengthen a single political faction — and make no mistake that is the desire here — would be a disastrously bad idea.