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#33: Make the U.S. Presidency a Single, 6-Year Term

Less than two years into President Barack Obama's first term, talk of the 2012 presidential election is already upon us. In addition to his presidential duties, Obama must now begin preparing a massive re-election campaign, potentially taking his attention away from the country's business. This is why some have suggested that we eliminate re-elections by creating a single, six-year presidential term—a solution first proposed and rejected at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

As head of state, chief diplomat and legislator, and Commander-in-Chief, the President’s plate is always overfilled. Factor in frequent unanticipated problems and the demands of the job can become insufferably large. "To run for re-election in the midst of this can best be described as an unreasonable addition," says University of Texas presidential politics scholar Bruce Buchanan. The actual issues that the President was elected to deal with miss out on a tremendous amount of time, energy, and resources and "the reelection period ultimately becomes a diverting experience for the President."

According to French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville: "The desire to be re-elected is the chief aim of the President; that the whole policy of his administration, and even his most indifferent measures, tend to this object." Because of re-election, the President must always consider the political implications of a decision in addition to the decision’s actual intrinsic value. As a result, much of what the President says and does in his or her first term can be dismissed by critics as motivated by the desire to retain the presidency—and reasonably so.  Former President Jimmy Carter advocated for a single six-year term on the grounds that a president with no prospect of re-election has greater credibility and moral authority.

Buchanan notes as well that "the formulation and implementation of the President’s first budget cannot possibly play out in four years”; most people underestimate the tempering effects of bureaucracy on the President’s progress.  In addition, he believes "many politicians feel as though voters hold unrealistic expectations of the President, and are generally underprepared, easily diverted, and over-influenced by emotion." Essentially, four years into an administration is not enough time for the average voter to make an informed and rational decision about how well the President has done his job.

Takeaway

Having a single, six-year presidential term means the energy that was once allotted to campaigning for reelection can be directed instead toward issues that actually matter.  The President is able to focus on his or her agenda without the constant burden of selling their public image and competence as a means of maintaining political viability; decisions can be based on the issues in themselves rather than on their political value; and the political opposition has far less incentive to subvert the President’s solution to a problem primarily as a means to feather its own political nest.

Why We Should Reject This

Having built up the case for a single six-year term, Buchanan is quick to dismantle it: "To suggest that the President should not have to worry about pleasing the people is to take on the sacred cow of democracy."

In a critique of the single six-year term, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote in a New York Times op-ed the that idea "is profoundly anti-democratic in its implications. It assumes presidents know better than anyone else what is best for the country and that the people are so wrongheaded and ignorant that presidents should be encouraged to disregard their wishes. ... It assumes that the democratic process is the obstacle to wise decisions."

Buchanan also points to the "lame duck effect," which takes place when a second-term president loses influence in Congress, causing his or her legislative effectiveness to decrease. A president with no prospect of reelection essentially loses influence upon inauguration. 

More Resources

— "Presidential Terms and Tenure: Perspectives and Proposals for Change," (PDF). 2009, Thomas Neale, Congressional Research Service.

— "Against a One-Term Six-Year President," 1986, Arthur Schlesinger, New York Times.

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