First Time’s a Charm

Why America should ditch the two-term presidency.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As the U.S. president struggles to assert his will and break a long season of political frustration and national impasse, both his enemies and his erstwhile supporters remain overly focused on him and his role in America’s new age of gridlock. Those on Barack Obama’s right see him as a hard-driven ideologue trying to frog-march Americans into an imagined socialist dystopia. Those to his left view him as pusillanimous, compromising and conceding his liberal beliefs to appeal to the mushy middle.

But what ails the United States has less to do with the personality traits and defects that Obama’s critics, on the left and right, are so ready to identify, and more to do with the compulsions of the country’s democratic routines. It’s not Obama who is the problem; it’s America’s broken political system.

Those routines no sooner deliver a new leader into office than he is required immediately to begin a new campaign for reelection. In an age of heightened media scrutiny, where any mistake has the potential to go viral and can in hours destroy political ambitions, timidity and trimming invariably become the order of the day for even the most visionary leaders. One can enter office clear-eyed about how to tackle America’s irrational energy consumption or its massive debt overhang, but policy fogs up fast when one is trying to keep potential funders and voters happy. So U.S. presidents spend their days waking to the prospect of bland compromise and turn in having abjectly sold out.

Americans pride themselves on their democracy — by any standard an extraordinary achievement (though sometimes they wish it upon the rest of us a little too pressingly). But perhaps Americans need to reflect more self-critically on some of the basic premises of their own democracy, in a way more in line with the general spirit of self-improvement and experimentation that pervades American society.

Is it really such a great idea to require presidential leaders to spend so much of their first four years in office fixated on securing another four years in the same office? Each first-term presidency becomes in effect an election campaign in which presidents are condemned to making themselves likable rather than solving the country’s problems — forget about pushing through hard choices. Over the next few decades, much as its economy will have to be reimagined, America’s democracy — one of the most successfully adaptive political systems of the modern age — is going to have to reinvent itself, too.

To get things started, how about doing away with the two-term presidency? Instead, establish one six-year term. (And here Americans shouldn’t be put off by the lousy examples of countries that currently have six-year presidential terms, which include Russia and Mexico. It won’t take much American ingenuity to make their own version work infinitely better.) The U.S. political system has, thanks to its founders, enough checks and balances, divided and countervailing powers, to minimize any damage that a six-year presidential term might produce. And fortunately, unlike my country of India, the United States has a deep bench of idealistic women and men who are willing to enter politics and who believe in government as a way of trying to improve their country.

Let them, then, have one long shot at writing themselves into the history books — and at altering their country’s path. Give them six years to focus on the job in hand, rather than on dialing for dollars and desperately avoiding anything that might alienate voters. A little less fascination with the individual officeholder, remarkable as the current one is, and a bit more attention to fixing the system might allow the next remarkable president to actually accomplish something.

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