It’s surprisingly common to hear two-term U.S. presidents, mid-way through their seventh year, start to talk openly about their desire for a third term. Eisenhower did it, as did Reagan and Clinton.
So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as too big a surprise to see President Obama, speaking this morning to the African Union, reflect on his willingness to serve.
“I am in my second term. It has been an extraordinary privilege for me to serve as the president of the United States. I cannot imagine a greater honor or a more interesting job. I love my work, but under our Constitution, I cannot run again. I can’t run again.“I actually think I’m a pretty good president. I think if I ran, I could win. But I can’t. So there’s a lot that I’d like to do to keep America moving, but the law is the law, and no one person is above the law, not even the president.”
The context, of course, is important. Obama wasn’t signaling his disappointment with the 25th Amendment, so much as he was rebuking those African leaders who refuse to relinquish power, regardless of their country’s laws or popular will. Listening to the president’s speech, there is no doubt Obama’s remarks were directed at those presidents who should transfer power to a lawful successor, but who choose not to.
Keep this in mind when you get an all-caps email from your uncle who watches Fox all day, demanding to know whether the White House is going to suspend American elections so Obama can stay in office indefinitely.
But before we move on, the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol whined this morning that it’s “embarrassing” to hear “an American president saying this while abroad.” Bill, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.
In May 1988, Ronald Reagan spoke at Moscow State University in Russia and was asked about whether he wishes he could “stay for another term.” Reagan began by talking about Congress seeking “revenge against Franklin Delano Roosevelt” when lawmakers changed the Constitution, which Reagan apparently saw as a mistake. The Republican president added:
“When I get out of office – I can’t do this while I’m in office, because it will look as I’m selfishly doing it for myself – when I get out of office, I’m going to travel around what I call the mashed-potato circuit – that is the after-dinner speaking and the speaking to luncheon groups and so forth – I’m going to travel around and try to convince the people of our country that they should wipe out that amendment to the Constitution because it was an interference with the democratic rights of the people. The people should be allowed to vote for who they wanted to vote for, for as many times as they want to vote for him; and that it is they who are being denied a right.”
Remember, Reagan was in the Soviet Union at the time, talking to our Cold War foe.
For what it’s worth, I happen to think Reagan was right on the substance. I’ve never understood the idea of an arbitrary mechanism that can, in theory, stop Americans from voting for their preferred leader. If a president finishes a second term, he or she is willing to serve another, and the American people want him or her to stay on the job, why should we be legally prohibited from voting for that president, simply on the basis of his or her experience?
But the question for President Obama’s Republican critics is a little different: were Reagan’s comments in Moscow “embarrassing,” too?
Postscript: In November 1987, six months before his USSR visit, Reagan said he intended to “start a movement” to repeal the constitutional amendment establishing presidential term limits. That, obviously, never happened.