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Presidential term limits inhibiting democracy

In 1947, Sen. Harley Kilgore, D-W.Va., condemned a proposed constitutional amendment that would restrict presidents to two terms. “The executive’s effectiveness will be seriously impaired,” Kilgore argued, “as no one will obey and respect him if he knows that the executive cannot run again.”

I’ve been thinking about Kilgore’s comments as I watch President Barack Obama, whose approval rating has dipped to 37 percent in CBS News polling during the troubled rollout of his health care reform. Many of Obama’s fellow Democrats have distanced themselves from the reform and from the president.

Or consider reaction to the Iran deal. If Obama could run again, would he be facing fervent objections from Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J.?

Probably not. Democratic lawmakers would worry about provoking the wrath of a president who could be re-elected.

Nor does Obama have to fear the voters, which might be the scariest problem of all. If he chooses, he could simply ignore their will. And if the people wanted him to serve another term, why shouldn’t they be allowed to award him one?

That was the argument of our first president, who is often held up as the father of term limits. In fact, George Washington opposed them.

Washington stepped down after two terms, establishing a pattern that would stand for more than a century. But he made clear that he was doing so because the young republic was on solid footing, not because his service should be limited in any way.

Only in 1940, amid what Washington might have called a “great emergency,” did a president successfully stand for a third term. Citing the outbreak of war overseas and the Depression at home, Democrats renominated Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The GOP moved to codify term limits in the Constitution in 1947, when a large Republican majority took over Congress. Ratified by the states in 1951, the 22nd Amendment was an “undisguised slap at the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” wrote Clinton Rossiter, one of the era’s leading political scientists. It also reflected “a shocking lack of faith in the common sense and good judgment of the people,” Rossiter said.

He was right. When Congress succeeded in limiting the presidency to two terms, its members limited democracy itself.

“I think our people are to be safely trusted with their own destiny,” Sen. Claude Pepper, D-Fla., argued in 1947. “We do not need to protect the American people with a prohibition against a president whom they do not wish to elect; and if they wanted to elect him, have we the right to deny them the power?”

It’s time to put that power back where it belongs. When Ronald Reagan was serving his second term, some Republicans briefly floated the idea of removing term limits. The effort went nowhere, but it was right on principle. Barack Obama should be allowed to stand for re-election just as citizens should be allowed to vote for – or against – him. Anything less diminishes our leaders and ourselves.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He wrote this for the Washington Post.

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