The 22nd Amendment

“Thank God for the 22nd Amendment.” – Democratic consultant commenting on Republican President Ronald Reagan’s popularity.

When George Washington voluntarily retired from the presidency after only serving two terms, he set a precedent that lasted more than 140 years until Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, defied tradition and ran for, and won, the presidency four times.  FDR subsequently was criticized by Republicans, but he was well within his Constitutional rights.  Indeed, proposed language limiting the number of terms our elected officials could serve was rejected three times during the Constitutional Convention.  The Founding Fathers saw no reason why an effective and popular elected official should be arbitrarily forced out of office.  On the contrary, the Founders thought that short terms of office — interrupted by frequent elections — would better ensure accountability than limited terms, which is why members of the House of Representatives, the branch designed to be the closest to “the people,” have to run for re-election every two years.

But FDR’s successful run for a third and fourth term had several political ramifications that eventually resulted in passage of the 22nd Amendment, which limited a president to being elected to two four-year terms. Granted, this amendment, which was originally proposed by Republicans, was due in part to their jealousy over Roosevelt’s popularity and their resentment that the White House had become the personal fiefdom of the Democratic Party.  But it was also true that in his last term in office Roosevelt was a desperately sick old man who never should have run for a fourth term — a fact he was able to hide from the voters.

What’s more, many politicians from both parties had come to feel that Roosevelt’s long White House tenure had skewed the traditional balance of power among the three branches of government — the executive, the legislature and the judiciary — in favor of the executive branch.  And in fact, the growth of presidential power, often beyond what the Constitution prescribed, was a hallmark of FDR’s presidency.

Thus, the 22nd Amendment was passed by Congress in 1947 and ratified this week (Feb. 26) in 1951.  Ever since, many, perhaps even most, sitting presidents have rued the amendment for making irrelevant—at least as they see it—the clear wishes of the voters.

They should all take a cue from our first president, who could have held the office forever, but understood better than anyone the toll that the awesome responsibility of the presidency can have on a man (ever notice how much our presidents age in eight years?).   Washington keenly appreciated the need for fresh blood and new leadership.

In that sense, the 22nd Amendment only made legal what the Father of Our Country had already established as proper.