Opinion: Can a single, six-year presidential term save us from ourselves?

January 4, 2024 6:00 am

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The 2024 presidential primary season officially begins in just a few weeks, but former President Donald Trump’s commanding lead in the polls of likely Republican primary voters and President Joe Biden’s absence of a Democratic challenger appear to destine a repeat of the 2020 election.

The most innovative country in the world with the third-largest population will elect either a narcissistic liar who has been indicted on 91 felony counts or an octogenarian who has been serving in federal office for over 50 years to be the most powerful person in the world.

It is an embarrassing predicament for the U.S. at a time when both Americans and the world need competent and effective leadership for their choices to be restricted based on the advantages afforded to an incumbent president and a past single term president.

By the time the 2024 presidential general election rolls around, many Americans will vote for the lesser of the two perceived evils. We got to this point in part due to a long and complex presidential primary process that in several states (up to 18, including Pennsylvania) excludes independent voters from choosing nominees.

Furthermore, Trump opted out of all four of the scheduled Republican presidential primary debates depriving Republican voters of genuine opportunities to assess his substantive policy positions. Television ratings dropped for each subsequent debate.

Democrats, on the other hand, have deferred to the strategy of discouraging viable candidates from challenging Biden for the nomination. Jimmy Carter was the last incumbent president to face a serious primary challenger when then Senator Ted Kennedy contested the nomination all the way to the national party convention in 1980.

How can we do better? Meaningful presidential primary reform is a tedious political process that includes state legislatures and complex political party rules.

Just look at the political backlash after the Democratic National Committee moved South Carolina ahead of New Hampshire as its first presidential primary election. While efforts to incorporate ranked-choice voting, top-two or top-four primaries, and open primaries are steps in the right direction, a bolder option should also be considered.

If a single, six-year presidential term limit were in place, the American people would be spared from a Trump or Biden second term. President George Washington started the unwritten tradition of not seeking a third term. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the only president to violate this norm. He died shortly after being elected to an unprecedented fourth term. In response, the 22nd amendment was ratified in 1951, which limited the president to two terms.

There are several reasons to re-visit and amend the 22nd amendment.

First, in general, there is widespread support for term limits.  According to a recent Pew Center Research poll, 87% of Americans favor term limits for members of Congress. Among most polls, support for term limits is bipartisan. In addition, the idea of a single, six-year presidential term is not new. According to the Congressional Research Service, between 1825-1996, there were 212 amendments introduced in Congress to establish it. The U.S. would not be alone in limiting its president to a single term (e.g., Mexico, six-year term and South Korea, five-year term).

Second, a single, six-year term would prevent incumbents from seeking reelection, thereby opening the door to more competitive presidential primaries on both sides of the political aisle.  Elections that do not include an incumbent are generally considered to be more competitive, and competitive elections are better for democracy, according to research.

Third, while it would not eliminate partisanship, a single term would free presidents to make political concessions or compromises that may not be possible if they were seeking a second term. It also relieves the opposition party from wasting taxpayers’ money to weaken the incumbent president politically as seems to be the case with the recent launch of the House Republicans’ impeachment inquiry.

Finally, some will argue that a single presidential term inherently limits the democratic will of the people, but term limits for president are already in place. If a president is elected to a second term, they are – in effect – a lame duck president. Not to mention, the democratic will of the people would be exercised through two congressional elections during their term (in their second and fourth years).

On the precipice of a repeat of the 2020 election, political reform is needed. A single, six-year presidential term is an idea worth re-considering. The United States is arguably the greatest country in the world with a large pool of talented people. Therefore, should we not trust that our presidential bench is deeper than the likes of Donald Trump or Joe Biden?

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Jonathan Rothermel
Jonathan Rothermel

Jonathan C. Rothermel is a political science professor at Commonwealth University-Mansfield. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ProfJCR.