Time to Reconsider the Six-Year Presidential Term

By Jill Lawrence

May 8, 2014 6 min read

There's nothing wrong with bringing TV weather people to the White House to wow them with presidential interviews and maybe stir some public concern about the climate change that's bringing us floods, droughts, wildfires and longer allergy seasons. It's actually quite creative from a marketing standpoint. But it's no metaphorical moon shot for a candidate who once said he hoped his election would mark "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

"Moon shot" is the phrase The New York Times chose to describe Mayor Bill de Blasio's new plan to add 200,000 units of affordable housing to his punitively pricy city over the next 10 years. It's a reminder that President Barack Obama is still waiting for his moon-shot moment.

Preventing an economic collapse is not the same as reaching for the stars. The same is true for saving auto companies and the banks, for leaving Iraq and Afghanistan, and for avoiding rash overseas moves. Someday the bitterly divisive Affordable Care Act might be regarded as Obama's moon shot, and celebrated as such. But not yet.

As Obama plods along with his tepid low-40s job approval rating, pundits argue over whether his foreign policy is a disaster or merely inadequate; whether his leadership style is thoughtful or destructively passive; whether he'll be judged better by history or worse. Meanwhile, polls show a possible debacle ahead for Democrats in the midterm elections. Obama could spend the last two years of his presidency vetoing a parade of bills meant to wipe out the impact of his first six.

This would not be surprising. Most two-term presidents are plagued with sixth-year meltdowns, and then we all have to endure another two years together. Richard Nixon spared us by resigning over Watergate, but the rest stuck around.

The Iran-Contra affair unraveled in 1986, forcing President Ronald Reagan to admit that administration officials sold arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages and then, defying a congressional ban on aid to anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua, sent the Contras some of the arms-sale proceeds.

President Bill Clinton in 1998 admitted to having had an inappropriate sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The House impeached him in December on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, and the Senate acquitted him in January 1999.

President George W. Bush suffered steadily deteriorating support for the Iraq war in 2006. His Gallup job approval rating dipped into the 30s that autumn, en route to the 20s.

Obama teased himself about his "stellar 2013" last weekend at the White House Correspondents Dinner. But his major second-term stumble so far was the terrible rollout of the Healthcare.gov website, and it is now fixed. His problem is simply that many Americans, and pundits in particular, are tired of him — tired of his caution, tired of his reserve and tired of his resolutely non-brassy, nontheatrical approach to his job. The political-industrial complex already sees him as a lame duck, glued in place at the White House even as rampant polling and chatter about 2016 signal a yen to move on.

If two-term presidents routinely run out of steam late in the game, why not a six-year presidency? Some worry that would create impotent six-year lame ducks or alternatively, empower ideologues to work their will. But voters would still be able to check or bolster administrations every two years in House and Senate elections. A longer, single-term presidency, in fact, could be liberating for citizens and presidents.

When they settled on four-year terms, the Founding Fathers could not foresee that presidents would be captive to a permanent campaign of fundraising and political positioning. Nor could they know that presidents would become omnipresent in our lives. Television, the Internet and social media have made it impossible to avoid presidents and all too possible to become weary of them.

I'd also argue that the presidency itself has become more draining for reasons that include new fiscal, economic and global challenges; heightened partisanship and incivility; and gridlock that makes it difficult for presidents to advance their agendas.

The late historian Arthur Schlesinger, making the case nearly 30 years ago against a six-year term, wrote that "the give-and-take of the democratic process is the best source of wise decisions." The Founders, those masters of compromise, would no doubt agree. But they would also be shocked by how little give-and-take remains in our democracy.

We had a perfect example just this week. Obama should be able to work with Congress to slow down climate change, but there's been no progress on that for years. So instead he hung out with a bunch of weather forecasters at the White House.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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