In Bristow, Virginia on Saturday night, Bill Clinton was the opening act for Barack Obama. As Clinton talked alternatively of “my presidency” and “my president” (meaning Obama), I was propelled forward to January 2017, when, if Obama is re-elected tomorrow, he will leave office. Obama will only be 55, and Clinton was only 54 when he left office in 2001. Obama, like Clinton, can campaign for future Democratic nominees, and perhaps create his own foundation, but much of the experience he gained in office will be lost – and, because of the 22nd Amendment, will never be reclaimed.
In March 1947, a Republican Congress passed the 22nd Amendment, and the states ratified it four years later. It denies presidents who have served six years or more the chance to run for re-election. It was aimed directly at Franklin Roosevelt, but it would also have prevented his ancestor Theodore Roosevelt from running on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912. Most recently, it barred Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Clinton from running for president again. The ban against more than two successive terms has some utility. It would have barred FDR in 1940, but it would have aided presidents like Dwight Eisenhower or Reagan, whose health was already declining, from being pressured to run again by their parties. But I can’t see any utility from the outright ban on running again.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “There are no second acts in American lives,” but there have been second acts in politics. In the U.S., Roosevelt was a great wartime leader during his third term. Would the country have been better off with Wendell Wilkie or whomever -- Henry Wallace? -- the Democrats would have run in FDR’s place in 1940? I doubt it. But there are also interesting examples overseas. Yitzhak Rabin was Israel’s Prime Minister from 1974 to 1977 and might have been remembered afterwards for giving way to Menachim Begin and the triumph of the Israeli right wing, but he had a brilliant return to office in 1992 when he helped shepherd the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO. If Rabin had not been assassinated in 1995, the Mideast might look a lot different and better today.
Charles de Gaulle was France’s leader from 1944 to 1946, giving way to the rickety French Fourth Republic, which produced 21 prime ministers in twelve years. In 1958, de Gaulle returned to office as President in the new Fifth Republic and lasted eleven years. De Gaulle probably overstayed his welcome, as Konrad Adenauer may have done in West Germany, but in de Gaulle’s first six years back, he wound down the disastrous war in Algeria, furthered the unification of Europe, and the rapprochement between France and Germany, and oversaw the rapid expansion of the French economy.
The 22nd Amendment deprives the United States of the possibility of successful second acts. It has also made a virtue of inexperience among American presidents. The practice of having an entirely new president every four or eight years has led to flailing and mistakes during a president’s first year or two in office. That has been particularly true in foreign policy. Over the last fifty years, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama have had rocky first years in foreign policy. Kennedy – Bay of Pigs. Reagan – Lebanon. Clinton – flailing in the former Yugoslavia and with Japan. And Obama’s initial Afghanistan policy was flawed.
Repealing the 22nd Amendment would not eliminate the possibility of presidential stumbles, but might lessen them, particularly if the country faced the prospect of electing an untutored new executive in the midst of a foreign policy crisis. I am not making an argument that Bill Clinton should have run again in 2004, or Obama, if he is re-elected this year, in 2020. Only that the possibility for them to do so should exist.