We’re two years into a lame-duck presidency. How are we doing? How do you like it?
There is certainly a bad history of lame-duck presidents. Some call it a “Second Term Curse.” (For example, see Lawrence Summers’ op-ed in August.) In recent history, Nixon resigned, Reagan had Iran-Contra, Clinton was tried by the Senate, George W. Bush had Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial crisis, and Obama. Obama’s list just grows and grows.
The problem is not just that scandals, maladministration, corruption, etc., come to light during a second term, but that the whirlwind consumes the time and energy of the Administration and of our Nation. Yet, even without scandals, maladministration, corruption, etc., coming to light, there is the still the problem of a presidential administration appearing to have lost its energy or, having energy, lost its ability to leverage the prospect of a new term to keep supporters and opponents engaged. (This is not a new problem for Obama since he was never engaged from the date of his first inauguration.)
How to ensure that supporters and opponents treat the Administration as though it has relevance?
Yes, we could repeal the Twenty-second Amendment that imposes a two-term limit. But that reinstates the issues raised by no term limit and FDR’s four elections. Alternatively, we could replace the Twenty-second Amendment with a three-term limit. But if a president were elected to a third term, then the third term would be a lame duck. Or we could adopt a single term of, let’s say, six years. But that makes the entire first term lame duck. (How does a governor of Virginia, limited to one term, ever get anything done?)
Let me make this proposal for your consideration. The length of the first term of a president would remain at four years. If, however, the president sought re-election, it would be for a term of two, not four, years. If the president sought a second re-election, it would also be for a term of two years. As now, the president could hold office for no more than eight years. (I put aside two issues: a president who had a partial term because of succession and a president seeking a nonconsecutive term.)
Some advantages of this arrangement would be: (1) the president would still be capped at eight years; (2) the fifth and sixth years of the presidency would not have lame-duck status; (3) after the sixth year, we could turn a president out or the president could decide not to try to continue in office; (4) while the seventh and eight years would have lame-duck status, this would be qualified since the president would have just been recently re-elected; and (5) the voter turnout for the third election would be greater because it would not be a “mid-term” election.
As to this “mid-term” election, one downside to this arrangement is that we would have this “extra” presidential election — more campaigning, more campaign finance issues, debates, primaries, all at a national level, etc.
What to do about challengers? First, if the president had one or more challengers in his/her own party, would the challenger(s) be running for two or four years? I answer four. Only the incumbent would be running for a two-year term.
Similarly, challengers in any other party would be running for a four-year term. So, yes, we could have what would, under current arrangements, appear to be quite the anomaly: for the same office, the incumbent would be running for a two-year term in the same primary and general election in which challengers are running for a four-term term. The voters would be given the choice of a two-year extension of a known quantity versus a four-year term for a new quantity.
This system would have meant that, for this election cycle, President Obama would have had to decide whether or not to seek a two-year extension. He may have had a challenger within his own party and Democrats might have preferred to nominate someone for a four-year term over two more years for Obama. And the Republicans would have been happy to put forward a nominee for a four-year term.
I submit that this proposal is a good alternative to our presidential form of government which, on the one hand, prior to the Twenty-second Amendment, had no term limits on a president, or on the other hand, after the Twenty-second Amendment, gave lame duck status to the entire second term of four years. Under this proposal, two years into a second term, the president has the option of saving face by declining to run — in effect, resigning — like Lyndon Johnson did on March 31, 1968, and the people have the option of declaring “no confidence.”
In 2014, President Obama and we needed these options.