By Hall Gardner*
In commenting on the new status of Chinese President Xi as president for life, President Trump quipped: “And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll give that a shot someday.” (March 3, 2018). What Trump may have considered to be a joke could instead prove to be a lapsus révélateur. It is not absolutely certain that Trump was joking about becoming president for life.
Whether intended or not, Trump’s statement in his 2019 State of the Union address that “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way. We must be united at home to defeat our adversaries abroad” also indicates Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and reveals the real possibility that Trump is considering a possible military intervention in some part of the world in an effort to divert attention from the Congressional investigation and avert forced resignation or impeachment proceedings.
As the Janus-faced Trump talks peace out of one side of his mouth, and war out of the other, and as the number of potential and actual conflicts mount between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, India and Pakistan, China and Taiwan, North and South Korea, Ukraine and Russia, and the United States and Venezuela, Trump can use the classic Hobbesian argument that a country should not change Commander-in-Chief in the midst of potential or actual conflict.
Trump’s authoritarian and corporatist tendencies, his efforts to sow discord and threats to go war (“We must be united at home to defeat our adversaries abroad”) represent a tactical means to remain in office and must be countered by a Congressional mandate to limit the presidency to a single 5- to 6- year term. Impeachment is Not Enough!!!
Of the proposals that I made in my book World War Trump (Prometheus Books, 2018) for major US governmental reforms that to seek to simplify American government and make it less costly, more inclusive and democratic, and ultimately more effective, the easiest major constitutional reform to achieve is to limit the president’s length of term to a single five- or six- year term of office.
A single term presidency is not a utopian proposal, nor is the proposal without historical precedent. The possibility was debated by the so-called Founding Fathers who ended up keeping the length of presidential term open without limitation. (The term “Founding Fathers” tends to overlook the role in framing the Constitution played by the Anti-Federalists in opposing the more centralized vision of the Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, among others.)
It only became customary for Presidents, if re-elected after their first term, to serve no more than two terms in office, as did George Washington to his credit, even though some US citizens had hoped that Washington (the man who was considered a traitor and “terrorist” of that era and was to be hung by the British if captured) would have remained in power for life. Nevertheless, a single-term presidency was initially supported by Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson. Yet both then reversed themselves and opposed the single-term presidency so that they could sustain power for a second term in office!
In fact, it seems to have been forgotten by Democrats themselves that Woodrow Wilson had been elected in 1912 on a Democratic platform calling for a single term and that the Senate had approved that proposed constitutional amendment in early 1913. But Woodrow Wilson himself then had the proposed amendment killed when the 62nd Congress went out of session. The 1912 Democratic Platform read: “We favor a single Presidential term, and to that end urge the adoption of an amendment to the Constitution making the President of the United States ineligible to reelection, and we pledge the candidates of this Convention to this principle.”
More recently, former President Jimmy Carter urged a constitutional amendment to limit the presidency to a single term, which can be achieved by one out of four ways as outlined in the Constitution. Carter’s arguments in favor of a single term presidency were in opposition to Ronald Reagan’s calls in November 1987 for starting “a movement” to repeal the 22nd amendment (passed in 1951) that limits Presidents to two terms. Reagan had hoped to serve at least 3 terms in office even though he may have had Alzheimer’s disease at the time, thereby raising questions as to who was really ruling the country. A 72- year old Trump apparently wants to be president-for-life given his admiration for the autocratic Chinese President Xi!
The most authoritarian of the “Founding Fathers,” Alexander Hamilton, had argued in Federalist 72 against all limits on the term in office. Hamilton stated that “There is an excess of refinement in the idea of disabling the people to continue in office men who had entitled themselves, in their opinion, to approbation and confidence; the advantages of which are at best speculative and equivocal and are overbalanced by disadvantages far more certain and decisive.”
The counter-argument presented here is that the two-term presidential system as presently implemented in the United States is dysfunctional and destructive, and needs replacement by a single fixed term of 5-6 years. The advantages of a single-term presidency are not “speculative” and “equivocal” and in contemporary circumstances, a one term presidency is more advantageous to the sustenance of a real participatory and more inclusive democracy involving greater degrees of power sharing than is the present two term system which undermines effective presidential leadership, while downplaying greater congressional and popular participation in government decision-making.
The first, and traditionally argued, reason for limiting the president’s length of term to a single 5-6 year term is to help stabilize the transition from one president to the next. A single term presidency would reduce possible demagogic actions taken by the incumbent president as he prepares for re-election and as the election process begins to divert the president’s attention away for more pressing matters of real national concern. There are numerous historical examples of harmful presidential actions that have been taken in an effort to win a second election, such a threatening war, excessive cuts in taxation, and engaging in huge deficit spending so as the stimulate the economy in an effort to augment job creation.
Trump’s efforts to force Congress to pay for a border wall at the huge expense of a government shutdown, and at great harm to government employees, so as to keep his promises to his electoral base, followed by a declaration of a national emergency in a situation that is not a true emergency, represents one of the most egregious examples of harmful presidential actions in recent history. Trump’s call for a national emergency indicates his willingness to engage in authoritarian measures to achieve his goals and sustain power.
The second reason for a single term presidency is that the modern US president, in the face of permanent media exposure, needs to begin to plot his re-election from almost the beginning of his first term of office. The president may become more clearly active in the effort to be re-elected about 1 ½ to 2 years before the next presidential election, if not sooner, as he (so far no “she”) needs to take his future into account as soon as possible by choosing policies that he believes will best appeal to his constituents, but which may not be the policies that best serve the interests of the country or the world at large.
The need to choose policies as soon as possible that best appeal to his constituents is magnified by the impact of the media and instant communications. The so-called post-modern President finds himself constantly bending over backwards to lobby groups, financial supporters, and domestic opinion, if he wants to stay in power. As he finds it very difficult to shape policies and public opinion, the post-modern President is more concerned about the image of what he appears to be doing than the actual reality of what he is doing.
This post-modern approach to the presidency means that the first term president devotes more time to TV, social media, and opinion polls (in addition to his/her financial backers) so as to assure his victory in the next election. For Trump, it matters less whether Pyongyang is actually making progress in eliminating its nuclear weapons (which it will dubiously do as North Korea, much like India, wants to be recognized as a “nuclear state” in exchange for a peace deal), than the appearance that Pyongyang is not testing such weaponry at Trump’s insistence.
The magnification of media attention on the President represents a heavy weight in addition to the fact that it is generally estimated that the President needs about one and a half years just to comprehend and adjust to his position, just at the time when he needs to gear up for the next presidential election campaign, and raise substantial funding.
The complexity of the issues involved demands the President’s full-time attention, yet the President can be easily distracted by the urge to re-elected. Contrary to Founding Father Alexander Hamilton et al., a president that seeks re-election is more likely to be strongly influenced by lobbyists, financial contributors for outrageously expensive campaigns, in addition to party and petty personal interests, than is a leader who is not running for a second term in office.
A third, and more novel, reason for a single fixed term presidency is that in the age of cyber security and executive control over “metadata,” it is even more crucial to limit the power of presidency to interfere in the lives of everyday citizens than ever before in US history. The longer a President is in power, the more control he/she will have over of invasive cyber-information which can permit the government to know the identity of every person with whom an individual communicates electronically, how long they spoke, and their location at the time of the communication.
After the September 11 attacks and the PATRIOT Act (which represented a wish-list of the national security establishment and which was then compiled, passed, but not read, by the majority of Congress), the mission of the National Security Agency has shifted from foreign intelligence gathering exclusively, to one that increasingly concerns itself with domestic communications, thereby interlinking the FBI, the CIA, and unnamed commercial partners and telecommunications firms. Ironically, the original reason in the 1950s for keeping the mandates of the FBI (domestic affairs) and CIA (foreign affairs) completely separate was to prevent the formation of a “Gestapo-like” organization. Under the so-called Patriotic Act, all data is intermixed even if separate intelligence agencies do not always assess data similarly or coordinate or cooperate perfectly.
The power of the Executive office has furthermore become increasingly centralized since Henry Kissinger was appointed both Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under President Richard Nixon. This resulted in a tighter integration between foreign relations and the military and intelligence arms of the US government. Both the Pentagon and CIA have been playing greater roles in the making of foreign policy as compared to the less-funded State Department that is skilled in diplomacy and the art of conflict resolution. It is accordingly better to rotate different leaders over the defense and security power pyramid so as to break up and prevent the formation of entrenched bureaucratic interests that back a particular president’s policies. At the same time, all heads of state need to be made more responsible to diverse factions of the population.
A fourth and “internationalist” reason for a single term presidency is to counter increasing tendencies toward authoritarianism throughout the world. As the United States still remains the social, economic and ideological trend setter on a global scale, US efforts to achieve a more inclusive democracy that strengthens the role of both Congress and US citizens against the power of the Executive branch can help, at least in ideological terms, attract a popular following across the globe. This appears true despite the general waning of US global appeal at least since the George W. Bush’s neoconservative administration, and despite the rapid rise of China whose present system of authoritarian governance appears much less appealing than its Maoist predecessor.
An America that seeks to implement a real and less indirect system of democracy can help stem the tide of authoritarian and fascist movements—movements which Donald Trump has actually been encouraging, whether wittingly or not wittingly. If the US shows that is truly creating a more inclusive system of democracy, then Washington is more likely to obtain greater world-wide support from those who would willingly (and not by imperial force or hegemony) seek to follow a new American model of inclusive democracy. The US now needs to truly practice what it has been preaching for so many years by means of radically reforming its Constitution.
It is often argued that eliminating the chance for re-election might generally be accepted for a “bad” president (depending on one’s point of view), but it could prevent a popular and successful leader from staying in power. Yet, popularity shifts over time, and a President who is popular in the first term of office may not necessarily prove to be popular and successful in the second term. And a truly popular or a truly good leader can find other ways to be useful. Jimmy Carter was not a very popular leader, and was not re-elected, but at least he continued to devote himself to work for peace and the diplomatic resolution of disputes and conflicts unlike most other US presidents.
It has also been argued that eliminating the chance for re-election is anti-democratic. The first problem with this argument is that the President that is in power generally has an advantage over his rivals, thus the playing field is not entirely fair and thus not truly “democratic” when a President seeks a second term in office. The second problem with the argument results from a misconception of what democracy means: Democracy stems from an active base of citizens, not from the top. And opening the door to new presidential candidates will open the door to a potentially better range of executive choices.
Changing leadership gives the chance for other individuals to prove themselves to the society at large. Changing leadership can accordingly widen the governmental decision-making process to a larger spectrum of options that are sought by the diverse sectors of society and that can help implement a more flexible and effective global diplomacy. All leaderships need to be stimulated and pushed by an active population and active popular representatives in the government—if those leaders are to achieve truly valuable social, political, economic and environmental goals, while sustaining goals of global peace and sustainable green development.
Overall, against Alexander Hamilton et al., the benefits of a one-term presidency outweigh the disadvantages. In World War Trump, I argued for a single 5-year term of office, even though the more traditional demand has been for six years. I think five years is adequate to learn the ropes and to act effectively, before turning over the position to a successor, which may or may not be an ally of the President. Given the tremendous power such a leader now yields over the American population and the world at large, I think it is better to limit the president’s term to five years, but this can be debated in the coming post-Trump era…
In sum, a single-term presidency can help make the executive branch more responsive to the real needs and interests of American population as a whole. Due to their age, both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, for example, should announce that, if either one is elected as president in 2020, they would serve only one term in office. This action could set the stage for the US Congress to propose the option of a one-term Presidency as an amendment to the Constitution, much as was the case in 1912-13—so that a corrupt and demagogic Donald Trump or any future such president will not even possess the chance of re-election
-Article sent to OtherNews by the author, on February 28, 2019.
* Hall Gardner is the author of World War Trump: The Risks of America’s New Nationalism (Prometheus Books, 2018) He is Professor and Co-Chair of the International and Comparative Politics Department of the American University of Paris. Gardner is the author of Crimea, Global Rivalry, and the Vengeance of History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); The Failure to Prevent World War I: The Unexpected Armageddon (Ashgate, 2015); NATO Expansion and the US Strategy in Asia: Surmounting the Global Crisis (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); The Ashgate Research Companion to War: Origins and Prevention, primary editor with Oleg Kobtzeff (Ashgate, 2012); Averting Global War: Regional Challenges, Overextension, and Options for American Strategy (New York: Palgrave, 2007). American Global Strategy and the War on Terrorism (Ashgate, 2005; revised and updated, 2007). Website: www.hallgardner.com