When Term Limits Weren’t Necessary

General George Washington Resigning His Commission by John Trumbull

At the end of the American Revolution, George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, resisted calls for him to rule the newly formed country, resigned his commission, and retired to private life. A decade and a half later, after being unanimously elected to the Presidency two consecutive times, Washington refused to run for a third term, despite the fact that there was no Constitutional prohibition against it. Two terms were enough, and once again, he retired to private life.

This stood as the standard for U.S. Presidents for over 100 years. A century’s worth of presidents, including personalities as big as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, stepped down after two terms in office. So what happened that led presidents to seek a third term?

Progressivism. The movement that claims to seek the will of the people, that claims to represent the people more than other political ideologies. Teddy Roosevelt was the first Progressive to rise to the highest executive office in the land. After initially being content with two terms, he ran for a third in 1912 after deciding that William Taft wasn’t Progressive enough. TR and Taft split the Republican vote that year, allowing another Progressive, Woodrow Wilson, to win the presidency. After serving two terms, Wilson tried to run for a third in 1920 despite the fact that he was bedridden after suffering a stroke and hadn’t been able to push the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations through Congress.

The 1920s saw 3 Republicans in the Oval Office. Harding died in office, and Hoover only won one term, but Coolidge declined to run in 1928, even though most believed he did not serve 2 full terms.

Then came the granddaddy of all Progressives: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR ran for and won 4 terms in office and probably would have run for a fifth had he not died in office. Despite the fact that he was unable to pull America out of the Great Depression, he kept telling the people he only needed one more term and the people kept believing him.

After World War 2, the nation shook off its blind faith in FDR and passed the 22nd Amendment, limiting the President to 2 terms or 10 years in office. And every president since has not even broached the subject of trying to overturn or circumvent presidential term limits … until now.

Barack Hussein Obama, the most recent Progressive to win the presidency, came into office acting and sounding a lot like FDR. He is already promising a long recovery from the current economic crisis, seemingly setting himself up for a 2012 campaign where he claims to need just one more term. And on January 6, 2009, two weeks prior to Obama’s inauguration, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), filed a bill to overturn the 22nd Amendment and presidential term limits, setting the stage for Obama to continue the FDR comparisons, break Washington’s precedent of two terms only, and run for a third term in office.

The greatness of George Washington lies less in how he led than in how he stopped leading. He did not grasp at power, did not cling to his position, did not believe that he was the only one who could lead/fix/restore the country he loved. As the United States moves into the 21st Century, we do not need Progressive leaders who promise to fix everything no matter how long it takes. We need leaders who will serve the American people to the best of their abilities and then allow others to give it a shot.

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