Donald Trump, president for life? We need term limits now

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska NYT: Trump had 7 million in debt mostly tied to Chicago project forgiven MORE, who boasted “Game Over for the haters and the radical left Democrats: No Collusion, No Obstruction,” now believes he can win a second presidential term. This is true despite threats of impeachment and calls to abolish the Electoral College system that permitted him to win the presidency in the first place.

If Trump does win again in 2020, could he possibly seek a third term in 2024?

Americans overwhelmingly oppose the recent proposal that Trump extend his first term in the White House by two years. Yet given the possibility that Trump’s reality TV show presidency could continue for a second term, or even a third, perhaps it’s time to raise the question: Should presidents serve only one term?

Trump could evoke a powerful precedent: Ronald Reagan.


During his second term in 1987, Reagan stated that he would start a “movement” to repeal the 22nd amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which limits presidents to two terms in office — a movement Trump could try to revive. Trump, for example, has expressed admiration for China’s Xi Jinping, who abolished term limits to become “president for life.” True, Trump did reject the suggestion that he might abolish the U.S. term limit — but will he keep his word?

Under the Articles of Confederation, Americans limited delegates to Congress to no more than "three years in any term of six years"; the president was not to serve "more than one year in any term of three years." Yet the U.S. Constitution did not explicitly mandate either presidential or congressional term limits. Some wanted George Washington to be president for life, but he was too burned out to pursue a third term. It was Thomas Jefferson who established the two-term custom.

The option of a single-term presidency has been considered throughout U.S. history. In 1912, the Democratic Party platform formally called for a single presidential term; the following year, the Senate approved a constitutional amendment to that effect. Former President Woodrow Wilson then had the proposed amendment discreetly killed when Congress went out of session.

After Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wartime bids for a third and fourth term had been futilely opposed by presidential candidates Wendell Wilkie and Thomas E. Dewey, the Senate soundly defeated a proposal to limit all federal officials to a single six-year term in 1947. The Senate then adopted the 22nd amendment, which was ratified by the states in 1951. In 1979, Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterGOP Senate confirms Trump Supreme Court pick to succeed Ginsburg Davis: On eve of tonight's debate — we've seen this moment in history before Obama urges voters to back Graham challenger in South Carolina MORE argued in favor of a single-term presidency on the grounds that no matter what he did, people would question whether it was a selfish “campaign ploy” or “genuinely done in the best interest of our country.”

In October 2016, while running for president, Trump called for a six-year limit for the House and a 12-year cap for the Senate to “end the cycle of corruption.” Yet Trump did not mention the option of limiting the presidency so as to put an end to presidential corruption.

After the spectacle of Trump’s first term, the issue of a single-term presidency has renewed urgency. A single five- or six-year term could help stabilize the presidential transition and limit the damage to U.S. interests caused by the conduct of a demagogic incumbent.

Another argument for a single presidential term stems from the increasingly centralized global power of the White House. Over the years, the Pentagon, National Security Council and CIA have been playing a greater role in foreign policy decisions than the less-funded State Department. A more frequent rotation in the White House, with each president implementing new domestic and foreign policies, would help prevent entrenched bureaucratic interests from taking deep roots while enhancing American diplomacy.

A further “internationalist” reason for a single-term presidency would be to counter the worldwide shift toward authoritarianism, even under democratic regimes. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been chancellor since 2005 but is finally stepping down in 2021. Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE has been reelected as Israeli prime minister since he became PM for a second time in 2009 — even though he called for term limits in 1997. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hopes to change the 2014 Egyptian constitution so that he can stay in office until 2034. And Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinThe US must not lose the cyberwar with Russia Chechen leader: Macron's stance on Muhammad cartoons 'forcing people into terrorism' Russia implements national mask mandate as coronavirus cases rise MORE and Dmitry Medvedev have used loopholes in the Russian constitution to remain in power as either president or prime minister since 2000. Putin might try to stay in power beyond 2024.

If Americans show they are truly working to create a more direct system of democracy that more strictly limits the power of the executive branch while eventually seeking to limit the terms of other elected officials, the United States is more likely to obtain greater global support from those who would more willingly follow a new American model of democracy.


Democracy stems from an active base of citizens, not from the top. Changing presidential leadership after a single term, and limiting terms for other elected officials, can open the decisionmaking process to a wider spectrum of options sought by the diverse sectors of society. A single-term presidency could reduce corruption and make the executive branch more responsive to the real needs and interests of the American population, not just to special interests.

Just as it did a century ago, the U.S. Congress should propose the option of a single-term presidency of five or six years as a constitutional amendment. Democrats such as Joe BidenJoe BidenGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska Jeff Daniels narrates new Biden campaign ad for Michigan MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersIntercept bureau chief says congressional progressives looking to become stronger force in 2021 Obama book excerpt: 'Hard to deny my overconfidence' during early health care discussions Americans have a choice: Socialized medicine or health care freedom MORE, both in their late 70s, could set the stage for such an option by saying that they will not seek a second term in office. And Democrats could obtain more support from independents and #NeverTrump Republicans if they link their calls to abolish the Electoral College ― an action that would tend to give Democrats an advantage over Republicans — with demands for term limits on Congress and a single term for the president.

True, a one-term presidency won’t absolutely guarantee that the Democrats will prevent Donald Trump's reelection. But it will ensure that America never again endures two terms of a similar presidency.

Hall Gardner is professor and co-chair of the International and Comparative Politics Department of the American University of Paris. He is author of “World War Trump: The Risks of America’s New Nationalism.”