I have previously answered this question with more depth but can’t find it, so I apologize if this answer isn’t quite as good as the first time around.
All three of those Presidents that you mentioned absolutely loved being President. Bill Clinton absolutely would have sought a third term if not for the 22nd Amendment. I think he would have kept running for the Presidency until the day he died if there were no term limits.
Eisenhower and Reagan are a little bit tougher because of their age. To this day, Reagan and Eisenhower (in that order) are the oldest Presidents in history upon leaving office. If they were younger, I think both of them would definitely have run again.
Reagan was just over two weeks shy of his 78th birthday when he left office and his official biographer, Edmund Morris, has noted that Reagan was clearly in failing health with what was probably the early stages of his Alzheimer’s Disease. Although Reagan remained in the public eye until 1994, I doubt that he would have run again if there were no term limits. He probably would have wanted to, but as protective as Nancy was of the President, I don’t think that she would have allowed it because she knew better than anyone the struggles that he was having with his memory and his energy in the last 18 months or so of his Presidency.
Eisenhower was 70 when he turned the White House over to JFK in 1961. Again, if it were up to him, I’m sure Ike would have wanted to remain in office, particularly since he had such doubts about JFK and even about the GOP nominee in 1960, his own Vice President, Richard Nixon. But like Reagan, eight years in the White House had taken a toll of Eisenhower’s health. For a time, there were questions about whether he would run for reelection in 1956, and many of his closest aides and friends and even his influential brother Milton urged him not to. In his first term, Ike had survived a significant heart attack and a brutal bout with ileitis which required emergency surgery. Of course, Eisenhower did win a second term, but there were health scares in that term, as well, including a stroke. Because of his health issues, I don’t think he would have sought a third term even if he were able to.
In my opinion, if there is a bad President — term limits or not — it is the job of the American electorate to vote that person out of office. If a bad President is able to use his/her dreadful incumbency as an advantage, that’s not a problem with the voting system, it’s a problem with the voters. We are accountable for that.
Although Ulysses S. Grant wasn’t the incumbent when Roscoe Conkling and the Stalwarts of the GOP attempted to nominate him for a third term in 1880 (he had been out of office since 1877), Republicans still held the White House (Hayes) and Grant had the advantages of relative youth (he was only 58), name-recognition, popularity as a war hero, experience as a two-term President, and was coming off of a successful trip around-the-world in which he was almost worshipped wherever he stopped. Despite all of that, his bid for a third term in 1880 didn’t get out of the Republican National Convention where Conkling made that speech that I quoted. It wasn’t because he was unpopular — it was because he wasn’t a very good President. The voters are a check against the advantages of a incumbency when it comes to a bad President.
Because we punish ourselves by limiting the amount of time that great leaders are put in a position to lead. Bill Clinton was 54 years old when he was term-limited out of office. Think about the last 12 years and imagine if we could have had Bill Clinton’s leadership and experience in the White House during that time instead of what we had. It’s ridiculous.
Not only that, but the 22nd Amendment (term limits for the President) wasn’t ratified in 1951. It was a direct reaction to FDR’s decision to break with tradition and seek more than two terms and it was really a knee-jerk reaction because some politicians were spooked that one party could gain a hold on the Presidency. The Founders had no intention in term limits for the President. George Washington started the tradition of serving two terms and it was just that — a tradition. When Washington left office after two terms he was also 65 years old, had been away from his estate and affairs for almost the entirety of the previous quarter-century (in which he helped launch a revolution, lead a ragtag force of troops against the most powerful military that had ever existed to that point, assisted in the foundation of a country, and literally created what the Presidency would be). He was an old, tired man who desperately missed his home and died less than two years after retiring. So, was it really a case in which he intentionally was setting forth a tradition that he felt all succeeding Presidents should follow? Or was George Washington just ready to retire? Just because Washington did it and every other President besides FDR followed doesn’t mean it was a good idea.
I’m not in the habit of quoting Roscoe Conkling too frequently, but he made a great point about the ridiculousness of limiting a President to just two terms at the 1880 Republican National Convention. There were no term limits at that time and Ulysses S. Grant, who had served as President from 1869-1877, was being put forth by Conkling’s wing of the GOP for nomination to an unprecedented (up to that time) third term. It caused quite a bit of controversy and Conkling addressed it with words and logic that resonate with me whenever I think about the 22nd Amendment:
"Having tried Grant twice and found him faithful we are told that we must not even after an interval of years, trust him again. My countrymen! My countrymen! Why? Why? What stultification does not such a fallacy involve? Is this an electioneering juggle or is it hypocrisy’s masquerade?
There is no field of human activity, responsibility, or reason in which rational beings object to an agent because he has been weighed in the balance and not found wanting. There is, I say, no department of human reason in which sane men reject an agent because he has had experience making him exceptionally fit and competent.
From the man who shoes your horse to the lawyer who tries your cause, the officer who manages your railway or your mill, the doctor into whose hands you give your life or the minister who seeks to save your soul — what man do you reject because by his works you have known him and found him faithful and fit?
What makes the Presidential office an exception to all things else in the common sense to be applied to selecting its incumbent? Who dares to put fetters on that free choice and judgment with is the birthright of the American people?”
I think that Eisenhower and Reagan probably would have been tempted to seek a third term, if possible. They both had health problems during their Presidencies, but I could see Eisenhower seeking a third term anyway. He had a difficult time stepping away, which is one reason why he waited so long to give Richard Nixon a solid endorsement in 1960. It wasn’t necessarily a lack of confidence in Nixon’s abilities, but partly because Ike felt that he (Ike) was still the best man for the job.
Reagan, like Clinton, loved being President, too. But when Reagan left office in 1989, he was about two weeks away from his 78th birthday and, according to his official biographer, Edmund Morris, there were signs that he may have been facing the early stages of his Alzheimer’s in the last few weeks of his Administration. Since President Reagan looked relatively healthy and definitely looked fit for his age, it’s difficult for people to realize that he was almost a full eight years older than Eisenhower (70) was when Ike left office. Even if Eisenhower had served another term, Ike still would have been four years younger than Reagan at the end of that third term. I think Reagan’s age and deteriorating health would have prevented him from a third term if it was Constitutionally possible. As closely as his public image was protected by Nancy Reagan, there is no way she would have stood by while he hung on for another term and publicly started to suffer from serious Alzheimer’s symptoms.
An interesting thing is that, if they had the opportunity to run for a third term and their health allowed it, I think Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton all would have been easily elected to another term. I think George W. Bush would have had a much more difficult time with seeking a third term, if possible. However, I don’t think Bush would have run again even if he was Constitutionally eligible. In those last few months of 2008, President Bush looked SO ready to get back to Texas. Even if his chances of being re-elected were positive, I still think he would have chosen retirement instead of a third term.
As for the second part of your question, I think that Truman would have stepped away in 1952, no matter what. All Truman ever wanted to do was remain a U.S. Senator. When he was suggested as a potential Vice Presidential candidate, he was not interested, and when others reminded him that President Franklin D. Roosevelt likely wouldn’t survive the term, Truman declared that he didn’t want to be President either. Of course, he was elected Vice President and as in the case of almost every VP who succeeds to the Presidency, once Truman got to the White House he wanted to be elected to a term in his own right. Still, before Eisenhower declared that he was a Republican, Truman was suggesting that he (Truman) would be happy to step aside and be Eisenhower’s running mate if Ike wanted to run for President as a Democrat. So, Harry Truman did not mind retiring home to Missouri in 1952, and I think he would have done so, no matter what.
LBJ’s case was different. The fact that he was very nearly upset in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary by Eugene McCarthy really shook President Johnson up and showed that he was vulnerable. If there wasn’t a serious challenge from within his own party — first from McCarthy and then from RFK — LBJ would have stayed in that race in 1968. Despite his withdrawal from the race, deep down LBJ still had a flicker of hope that the Democratic National Convention would be deadlocked, turn to the outgoing LBJ, draft him into the race, nominate him, and he’d be the conquering hero, vanquishing Nixon and bringing the Vietnam War to an end.
LBJ was also a man of contradictions, though. Throughout his life, he always said that he would die young because all of the men in his family died by the time they were 64 or 65. As much as Johnson was addicted to power and craved the love of the American people (something that he never received like JFK did, which “broke his heart” according to Richard Nixon), he was also deeply worried that another four years in the White House would kill him. Worse yet, he would suffer an incapacitating stroke like Woodrow Wilson. LBJ often had a nightmare where he fell ill like Wilson and was an invalid — a shell of a once-powerful man bedridden or feebly being rolled through the White House in a wheelchair. It was an macabre thing to think about, but it was something that frequently haunted President Johnson, especially because he had suffered a near-fatal massive heart attack in 1955 when he was Senate Majority Leader. The confident, arrogant, impetuous, strong-willed LBJ wanted to take on Nixon and serve four more years in the White House. The sensitive, insecure, depressed LBJ considered resigning, didn’t think he’d live through the next term (1969-1973), and often had to receive a pep talk from Lady Bird to get his act together and go to work. So, with LBJ, it would actually depend on which LBJ you got on decision day when it comes to whether he would have sought a third term if not for the disastrous results of the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary.
By the way, Lyndon Johnson died on January 22, 1973. If he had served a third term, it would have ended on January 20, 1973, just two days prior to the day that he actually died.
I don’t like the idea of term limits at all, but if we’re going to have term limits for the Presidency (which, of course, we do), then I think the House and Senate should have term limits, as well. I don’t like the fact that term limits are imposed on the President if Senators and Representatives can keep getting themselves elected (and basically wage a continuous campaign for their seat).
I want to see a balance there, but I’d much rather see the 22nd Amendment abrogated so that Presidents can serve more than two terms. The Founders didn’t place anything in the Constitution about term limits. While every President for 150 years followed George Washington’s two-term tradition, it was just that — a tradition. The 22nd Amendment was a knee-jerk reaction 65 years ago due to FDR being elected to four terms and the Democrats having what ended up being a 20-year hold on the White House.
I think the best argument against term limits is the fact that Bill Clinton is only 66 years old, yet he’s been relegated to the sideline for what will soon be 12 years. If not for the 22nd Amendment, Clinton could still be President today. and there are not too many people on either side of the aisle who weren’t better off during the Clinton years and wouldn’t feel confident with him at the helm
As you can see, I am asked frequently about term limits on the President of the United States. So, instead of answering this questions a bunch of times, I’ll do it once. Thanks to nobedofroses, hallchristopher, musicesquire, davetrains, untoldhistory, resistiance, and anybody else who has asked a similar question.
I really dislike the idea of term limits for the President. I think the 22nd Amendment, which prevents somebody from being elected to more than two terms as President was a knee-jerk reaction to the long hold that FDR and the Democratic Party had on the White House during the 1930s and 1940s. I think the restriction on Presidential terms is ridiculous and harmful to the Presidency. It was explicitly not encoded within the Constitution by the Founding Fathers and I believe that was for the same reasons that the Founders didn’t put term limits on House members, Senators, or Supreme Court Justices. The two-term limit is a handicap which shackles the President of the United States into being a lame duck who is always either playing defense by not taking political risks or being overprotective about his political capital for at least half of his Presidency — (during the run-up to mid-term Congressional elections and for 18 months prior to his own re-election).
As I’ve previously written on this subject:
There have only been term limits on the Presidency for less than 60 years. The two-term precedent set by George Washington was a tradition, not anything set in the Constitution. I believe that the Founders very specifically kept from limiting the Presidency because they felt that if there is someone uniquely suited for that office — like George Washington — we should do our best to keep him in that office for as long as possible in order to better the country.
There is no proof that term limits are an effective manner to keep political power fresh and accessible. I’m going to use California as an example because that’s where I lived for my entire life. The term limits on members of the Assembly and State Senate have created a system where the Assembly is a turnstile of nobodies who become a name and then become a State Senator and, just like that, are termed out of office. This creates a spectacularly terrible legislature.
We (and I’m guilty too) grumble about politicians who become entrenched in Washington and hold on to power for too long. In a lot of cases, that can be very obvious — Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd are two examples. But it is also very good to have wise voices and experienced leaders in Congress — Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole are two examples.
There are no term limits for members of the House of Representatives. There are no term limits for Senators. There are no term limits for Supreme Court Justices. There should be no term limits for Presidents and Vice Presidents.
Another reader, garyfrakingoak, sent me this question about term limits:
I have previously endorsed the idea of the one, 6-year term, but even that is not ideal. I think a 6-year term is better because it gives the President more time to grow into his position, understand his role, and learn how to use the office correctly. However, that doesn’t remove the lame duck status for large chunks of time during the President’s Administration. In fact, a 6-year term would include TWO Congressional elections (in Years Two and Four of the Presidency) and that might even be worse than one midterm election during a 4-year term.
In another answer, I noted that:
If the public must have term limits placed on their Presidents, I think it should be two six-year terms. Every President and every Presidency evolves, just like the institution of the Presidency itself is always evolving. A President should have more time to learn how to use the office before he has to worry about holding on to it or giving it up.
In my ideal American government, there would be no term limits on the Presidency. To me, it just does not make sense that we’ve placed term limits on the Executive branch but not any of the other branches of government. Plus, it’s a recent development, not something that was anything more than a tradition for the majority of our nation’s life. Would it result in tyranny? I don’t think so. The people of this country have the power to vote out their President. It’s happened many times. With the fatigue that Americans have with their leaders, I doubt that many Presidents would be given more than two terms anyway. If we’re capable enough to vote a President in, we are capable enough to vote them out. And if no limits means that someone might become entrenched in office, lethargic, and potentially corrupt, well, we’ve already got that issue and it’s called the United States Congress.
I’m not a fan of term limits on any office at any level of government.
We’ll have to look at it two ways, as you mentioned. First of all, there was no restriction on running for a third term until the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951, and the first President actually affected by the 22nd Amendment was Dwight Eisenhower. Grandfathering meant Truman wouldn’t have been affected by the restriction and could have ran for as many terms as he chose.
Secondly, we’re thinking about what would have transpired had Washington not set the two-term precedent and if none of the Presidents adhered to Washington’s tradition (only a few ever considering breaking the tradition).
With that said, here’s my answer, with some qualifications:
Andrew Jackson would have ran for a third term if he had been younger, and he absolutely would have been elected again. When Jackson left office in 1837, he was nearly 70 years old and he very nearly resigned during his second term because of his poor health. If Jackson had won the 1824 election (and, to be honest, he kind of did) instead of John Quincy Adams, I think he would have served from 1825-1837 if his health had allowed it.
A President would have to be elected to a second term to seek a third term, so we’ll skip from Jackson to Lincoln. Lincoln was assassinated at the very beginning of his second term, so we’ll never know what would have happened if he had served eight years instead of four years and a month.
Ulysses S. Grant sought a third term in 1880. He had left office in 1877 and turned things over to Rutherford B. Hayes, but Hayes pledged to serve only one term when he made the compromise with Democrats which swung the 1876 election from Samuel J. Tilden to Hayes. At the 1880 Republican National Convention, there was quite a bit of support for a third term for Grant and he actually led on the first 35 ballots of voting for the nominee. Grant desperately wanted to be renominated, but things fell apart and James Garfield beat Grant for the nomination by just 66 votes. Grant would have been the first President nominated for a third term if it weren’t for those 66 votes.
Theodore Roosevelt obviously attempted to run for a third term in 1912 after he had pledged to not run again in 1908. TR immediately regretted his decision not to seek a third term in 1908 and hand over the White House to William Howard Taft. TR was not even 50 years old when he left office and very few people loved being President as much as Roosevelt did. Roosevelt was considering running for President in 1920, but he died at the beginning of 1919. If he had run in 1920, Roosevelt — just 60 years old at the time — almost certainly would have been elected to a third term.
Woodrow Wilson also wanted to run for a third term in 1920. Unfortunately for Wilson, he had been severely incapacitated by a stroke in 1919 and probably should have been forced to resign due to his health instead of lingering like a shadow until he turned the White House over to Warren Harding in 1921. Even if he had been healthy, it’s unlikely that Wilson’s Democratic Party would have wanted to renominate the unpopular Wilson for a third term in 1920.
Once the 22nd Amendment came into play, it became impossible for Presidents after Eisenhower to seek a third term, but in my opinion, ALL of the Presidents since the 1950’s who had won a second term would have sought a third term, if possible. Power is difficult to relinquish and the Presidency is the most powerful position in the world. All of the Presidents were ambitious, ego-driven politicians and none of them willingly wanted to leave office.
Dwight Eisenhower was the first President affected by the 22nd Amendment’s restrictions and, despite being 70 years old in 1960, he personally felt that he was a better candidate for the Republicans than anyone else, especially the eventual nominee (and his own Vice President) Richard Nixon.
Ronald Reagan was even older than Eisenhower at the end of his second term — almost 78 years old and in questionable health — but Reagan also made it clear that he wished he could have run for a third term. Eisenhower’s chances in 1960 would have been dicey; Reagan almost certainly would have been re-elected.
Bill Clinton, as you mentioned, was just 54 years old when he left office in 2001. I think Clinton would have had a tough time running for a third term in 2000, but if he had retired and come back in 2004 to challenge George W. Bush, I think Clinton would have definitely been elected to a third term. The nation approved of Clinton’s job in 2000, but I think most Americans needed a break from him. By 2004, his return would have been a relief to most voters, especially with lackluster competition against Bush like John Kerry, John Edwards, Howard Dean, and Wesley Clark.
As for George W. Bush himself, I do think Bush would have sought a third term if Constitutionally eligible. I don’t think he would have beaten any Democratic nominee, however. In fact, to name-check William Jennings Bryan again, I think the Democrats could have dug him up in 2004 and he would have finally won a Presidential election if they had campaigned him against Bush.
Also, in case anyone was wondering, I think the restriction on Presidential terms is ridiculous and harmful to the Presidency. It was explicitly not encoded within the Constitution by the Founding Fathers and I believe that was for the same reasons that the Founders didn’t put term limits on House members, Senators, or Supreme Court Justices. The two-term limit is a handicap which shackles the President of the United States into being a lame duck who is always either playing defense by not taking political risks or being overprotective about his political capital for at least half of his Presidency — (during the run-up to mid-term Congressional elections and for 18 months prior to his own re-election). I support the elimination of Presidential term limits (remember, they only were instituted within the past 60 years) or the creation of a single, six-year Presidential term if there has to be limits.