June 01, 2020
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One-term presidency

Former Vice-President Dick Cheney has predicted that President Barack Obama is doomed to be a one-term president. Despite his success in helping secure George W. Bush a second term, Mr. Cheney’s credentials as a political prognosticator may be suspect. He was President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff in 1975, and so was part of the team that failed to win that president’s re-election. And under another one-term president, George H.W. Bush, he served as secretary of defense.

A couple of decades ago, predictions about a president’s prospects for a second term just over a year into his or her first term would have been ignored as empty speculation. But in this warp-speed political era, such crystal ball gazing is encouraged.

Of course, White House staffers are very much aware of the looming 2012 election. In the last few presidencies, virtually every major policy position is weighed against that one, last election by the sitting president. And increasingly, one-term presidents are seen as failures (see Jimmy Carter).

The second-term problem motivates presidents in different ways. Responding to Mr. Cheney’s comment, Mr. Obama said he’d rather be a good one-term president than a mediocre two-termer. President Bill Clinton, his labor secretary Robert Reich has said, essentially cut a deal with then-Federal Reserve head Alan Greenspan; if the president took real steps toward deficit reduction, Mr. Greenspan would keep interest rates down and allow the economy to grow. It grew, helping Mr. Clinton get re-elected.

Second terms aren’t always peaches and cream — Watergate, Iran Contra, the stained blue dress and Katrina were all second-term disasters.

What changes would be wrought on the partisan dynamics of Washington if our presidents served one, six-year term? Would they be lame ducks by year four? Or would they be freed from that ever-present pressure to plan for another campaign and act on principle, making the tough but unpopular choices?

Fifty-nine years ago today, the U.S. ratified the 22nd Amendment, which limits the president to two, four-year terms. In 1951, of course, Americans would have been aware that Franklin Roosevelt had run for and won terms in the White House, bucking the two-term tradition that began with George Washington.

A single, six-year term could consolidate even more power in the executive branch. Or it could begin to liberate the president from his or her party’s electoral worries. Such a president could even morph into an independent, and side with Republicans and Democrats according to the merits of their positions, not according to party loyalty.

It would represent a big change, but a single, six-year term could be a step away from perennial partisan standoffs.

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