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Second-Term Presidents – Why?

December 17, 2013

The general political and historical consensus is that the second term of most U.S. presidents is seldom as effective as the first. By the time the first year of the second term rolls around, people have had a chance to see the results of whatever the incumbent’s policy decisions have been. It’s no accident that many of those policy decisions or implementation dates fall after the second term election.

That has seldom been as starkly true as the second term of our 44th president. By any measure, President Obama’s second term has been packed with controversy, the most obvious being the rollout of his namesake legislation, Obamacare. During his first term he and his political base succeeded in fundamentally changing the relationship of Americans to the healthcare system and indeed to their government. The actual real-world effect of that law  was apparently carefully calculated to become evident only after the second-term campaign.

With apologies to the AP style guide, this law will forever bear the President’s name. At least at present, there is nothing private or affordable about this piece of legislation, so it’s formal title seems oddly incongruent.

Be that as it may, the current results of Obamacare brings up the question of whether it is time to change the term of all presidents. There has long been an undercurrent of support for term limits on members of Congress. Why not modernize the presidency?

All presidents have to consider that second run for the office. Our current placeholder in the White House took that to something of an art. His one strength seems to be in campaigning, and that second election virtually consumed at least the last two years of his first term.

Would it be more useful to extend the first term to six years, but make it the one and only term?  Given  that the first two years are a learning curve for virtually all presidents, would it make more sense to relieve them of worrying about that second term, leaving them free to govern?

It’s easy to lobby for seminal changes when you don’t like something, and quite another to live with those changes when the original circumstances change. Still, this particular president’s reign has pointed out in singular fashion what happens when holding the office becomes more important than performing its functions well.

Like many kitchen table style brainstorming sessions that result in “easy” fixes to a problem, this one generates problems of its own. What if we were in the middle of a war?  What if the people really liked the job a president was doing and didn’t want to change? Would there be an “exceptional circumstances” clause, or an option to just automatically include the incumbent on the ticket, but require a 60% super-majority to re-elect a sitting president?

Would a single-term president be more or less capable of achieving congressional cooperation and consensus if members knew that they didn’t have to spend two out of the first four years establishing a beachhead for or against the president? The current drift away from  President Obama’s policies by Democrats running for re-election would suggest that could have been a factor in how they voted during the first term. 

Our system of government gives immense power to any sitting president. Ideally, that is balanced by the so-called equal powers given to the other two branches of the government. In practice, the fact that presidents can pack federal courts with judges that are not just philosophically in sync with the president, but who become beholden to him for their jobs, the restraining power of the judiciary becomes suspect.

In the case of Congress, the only thing that separates America from any other two-bit dictatorship is the election process, and that only works when one party does not exert undue influence over that process. With the seemingly unfettered ability of the party machines to raise funds and influence the process, even that check on power seems somewhat precarious. Having a presidential election every four years is a fund raiser’s dream.  

There is no such thing as a perfect world, and  there is never going to be a perfect president. At the very least however, the American people have a right to expect that their president will govern for the good of the nation. Sometimes that works out OK, but when it doesn’t, it is marked by spectacular consequences.

Perhaps it is time to consider relieving any future president not of the burden of governing, but of having to govern selfishly. A president that doesn’t have to govern to rig popularity polls for the next election might just be able to bring some credibility back to the office, and the country. It’s certainly time to have that discussion. 

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