Not long ago, President Barack Obama made some minor headlines–and induced apoplexy on the right wing–by mentioning that if it was possible for him to run for a third term as U.S. President, he could probably win. I found this statement interesting because I specifically recall Bill Clinton saying something similar in 2000. Both men, and every President since Harry Truman, has been barred from seeking a third term by the 22nd Amendment, passed in 1951. Before that time, however, there was no Constitutional prohibition on Presidential hat tricks, but there was a custom, dating back to the founding of the republic, that Presidents should emulate George Washington and step down after two. Only one President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had the gumption to do that, but several others either tried seriously (Grant, Teddy Roosevelt) or talked about doing so, whether they could legally accomplish it or not.
I thought it might be interesting to look back through American history and speculate which U.S. Presidents might have won a third term, if they had been willing to try and if there was no 22nd Amendment, and which ones might seem like they could have done so, but probably couldn’t. Admittedly this is nothing more than speculation. You can’t prove a what-if in history, but in a way that’s what makes it an interesting game: the stakes are pretty low. So, without further ado, let’s look at third terms that never were, and what might have happened.
Could’ve: George Washington. Hypothetical third term: 1797-99 (?)
George Washington set the informal two-term tradition in 1796, when he declined to stand a third time, which remained unbroken–not for lack of trying–until 1940. The very importance of the act points pretty strongly to the likely reality that he could have won in 1796 if he’d been willing to run. Washington was not universally popular. He did have political troubles with the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 and especially the hated Jay Treaty with England in 1795, but given the fact that it’s doubtful any candidate would have dared to challenge him, it seems likely he could have just stayed in office without too much trouble had he wished. However, he probably would not have finished out his term. In real life Washington died in December 1799; had he done so while still serving as President, it would have triggered a Constitutional crisis, which in real life did not come until April 1841 with the death of William Henry Harrison.
Could’ve: Madison or Monroe. Hypothetical third terms: 1817-1821, 1825-1829.
I treat the last Virginians basically as one because their situations were remarkably similar. The Federalist Party had vanished as a political force by the time of Monroe’s first election in 1816, which would’ve been Madison’s third if he had run, and the situation wasn’t changed that much at the end of Monroe’s real-life second term in 1825. Presidential politics were remarkably moribund from 1816 to 1824, so I could easily see either President winning a hat trick.
Could’ve: Andrew Jackson. Hypothetical third term: 1837-41.
Andrew Jackson’s two real-life terms as President were utterly disastrous, but that judgment rests more on history than it does on his reputation at the time. Jackson was still quite popular in 1836, attested to by the fact that his hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, got elected that year mainly on Jackson’s endorsement. Jackson could’ve done it, but his third term would have been tumultuous. The Panic of 1837, which began just as he was leaving office, would have sullied his reputation, as it did for Van Buren’s. I could definitely see Old Hickory wearing out his welcome after only a short time into his third term.
Could’ve: Theodore Roosevelt. Hypothetical third term: 1909-13.
Teddy’s problem was less desire than timing. Clearly he did want a third term, badly, because in real life he ran for one in 1912, after he’d been out of office three years. Had he actually run in 1908 while he still was President, instead of turning the office over to Taft–another hand-picked successor–he probably could have made it. The economy wasn’t the best in 1908 but Teddy still had enormous personal popularity and enjoyed respect on the world stage. The Democrats couldn’t muster a very strong candidate to oppose him–William Jennings Bryan had already lost twice. Alas, by 1912 the political winds had shifted. TR missed his chance.
Couldn’t have: Harry Truman.
Though he’s adored by historians today, Harry Truman was not well-liked in 1952 when he did legally have the chance for a third term–and evidently considered seriously running. (The 22nd Amendment only took effect with his successor). The war in Korea and a slowing economy were the chief reasons the public had soured on Truman. He probably would have gone down to an epic defeat, and he knew it, which is part of why he decided to step down.
Could’ve: Ronald Reagan. Hypothetical third term: 1989-??
I thought long and hard about this one. Conventional wisdom is that Reagan was easily popular enough in 1988 to win a third term if he could have; the economy was strong that year and he was still well-liked. The question that hangs over this scenario, though, is Reagan’s Alzheimer’s Disease. He publicly announced in in 1994 but many witnesses say that there were significant signs of mental deterioration much earlier than that–possibly even before he left the White House for real in 1989. If Reagan had been elected to a third term, and under public scrutiny for four more years, I think it’s at least possible his Alzheimer’s would have been detected earlier. I doubt he would have been able to finish a third term. This would have been a tragic and wrenching experience to watch unfold in the public eye.
Could’ve: Bill Clinton. Hypothetical third term: 2001-05.
In the year 2000 the economy was roaring and Bill Clinton’s approval ratings were in the 60s. Furthermore, he became a remarkably more effective President toward the end of his second term, ironically after the attempt by Republicans to impeach him for the Monica Lewinsky affair. I tend to think Clinton would have had a pretty tranquil coast toward re-election in 2000 especially if his opponent was George W. Bush. His third term would have been extremely rough, though. The recession and 9/11 were formidable challenges for any President.
Could: Barack Obama. Hypothetical third term: 2017-21.
I tend to agree with our current President that he could win re-election to a third term in 2016 if he was legally able to do so. To understand why you should read this article, about the interesting “13 Keys” system that predicts Presidential elections–and does not depend, at least in the 2016 analysis, on the identity of the candidate. With as much disarray as the Republican Party is in this cycle, it seems a long shot that they could field a candidate that could seriously challenge Obama–and keep in mind, if Obama was running as an incumbent, he would have another of the 13 Keys in his favor.
The question of term limits keeps coming up in American politics. At least for the President, it’s been settled beyond all doubt since 1951, but even today there’s occasionally talk of repealing the 22nd Amendment. I doubt that will ever happen, but it’s interesting to think about what might have been, and possibly is, in an alternate version of history.