On The Office of the President

By: Eli Wizevich

FEATURE

Just hours after his inauguration, nearly 4 years before the 2020 election, Donald Trump filed his official reelection paperwork with the Federal Election Commission; weeks later he held the first rally of his presidency, paid for by his campaign. The presidency as it stands today is in a constant state of reelection, forcing any president, irrespective of party or temperament, to pander and politic, playing to the interests of their own career over those of the nation. Accordingly, a president has little incentive—and even less time—to govern candidly. Although the Trump administration has exacerbated this precedent, if a Democrat should win in November, one would expect the same behavior. 

Article II of the Constitution erects a presidency with a term of four years. In Federalist No. 71, Alexander Hamilton defends the four year term, chiefly as a means of protecting the president against those “who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests.” Hamilton believed that any period of time shorter would leave the executive susceptible to corruption in hopes of attaining reelection. Hamilton’s rationale persists, though the effectiveness of this institutional bulwark has decayed since. 21st century politics is a world apart from the republican idealism of the 18th century. Today, special interest groups, media coverage, and sycophancy occupy an outsized role in all political offices—especially the presidency: a single person whose power is far-reaching and too rarely encumbered. 

Thus this problem is inherent within the institution of the presidency and the constitution which decrees it. Accordingly, I believe it necessary that we adopt an amendment which reforms the presidency to a singular six-year term. In keeping with Hamilton’s vision of an independent, active, and accountable executive, this proposal would severely alter the powers of the presidency and the political machine encrusted around the imperfect institution, creating an office ready to fulfill the demands of both contemporary democracy and an ever-changing world. 

Imagine the amendment reading something like this: “Section 1. The twenty-second article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed. Section 2. The President, together with the Vice President, shall hold their respective Offices for a term of six years. Section 3. No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than once, and no person who has held the office of the President, or acted as President, for three or more years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office. Section 4. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission to the States by the Congress.”

Most glaringly, this proposed amendment would introduce a separation between presidency and special-interest that, under the current system, could only be possible if, in James Madison’s words, “men were angels.” A president, for six whole years, would be beholden to no fossil fuel group, no gun or pharmaceutical lobby, no union, and no other interest other than that of his or her ideological cause and the American people, simply by eliminating reelection. Even if the president did make a deal with the devil, so to speak, before their first election, there would be no logical or ethical rationale behind allowing oneself to be bought for the following six years. Coupled with campaign finance reform, the presidency could begin to regain its power for forthright governance and independence from those who pursue their own advantage.

 

Further, the single term would allow presidents to make unpopular but necessary decisions. Presidents are privy to multitudes of information that contradicts popular thought, but they are discouraged from acting as it oftentimes would damage their persona. President Kennedy, recognizing the fruitless future for the United States in Vietnam, wanted to pull troops but was advised against it in face of early public support for the war. In a modern regard, many legislative items that would jeopardize reelection are nevertheless imperative: entitlement reform, tax increases, and balancing the federal budget come readily to mind. If the president was free to act on principle and candor—rather than self- and special-interest—American policy could confront its problems head on.    

Almost always prioritizing political expediency over reflection and principled governance, Presidents are too often caught up in the next election to rule with sagacity and an even, uninfluenced hand. Consider the coronavirus. A national lockdown, similar to that of the UK, is advisable to curb the spread of the virus; however, a lockdown would hit consumer and investor confidence and tank the stock market, damaging President Trump’s main appeal: economic might. Yet the benefits greatly outweigh the cost—from an ethical and public health perspective. Ostensibly, President Trump wants American business life to be up and running by Easter for his own electoral strength, not necessarily for the good of the nation. A six year term severs the campaigner from the governor, and would impel any president into adopting the measures best for the general welfare of the nation. 

Aside from the powers of the president, the electoral process would also fundamentally change with a six year term. Cheating for one’s electoral gain would become obsolete. If Richard Nixon or Donald Trump had been elected to six year terms, there would be no need to use the effectively infinite resources, connections, and powers of the office to investigate political rivals and tear the country apart. Pandering (and in the aforementioned extreme cases, cheating) for the sake of reelection would lose its necessity and thus its practice in American politics. Recently, the Democratic primary has centered around one defining quality of candidate: electability—who is the best positioned to beat President Trump in November. As a result, voters often cite how they have sacrificed, in favor of alleged electability, their policy preferences. If a president were elected to a single six year term, the opposition party would run on policy rather than the mantra of “Get President X out!” Voters would then make their choice based on ideas, rather than the simulated prospect of electability. 

Opponents of this amendment often argue that a president would be less regulated by the voters and more enlivened to commit wrongdoings. Yet the duty of oversight is withheld chiefly by congress—the powers to investigate, subpoena, and ultimately impeach. Congressional authorities would be more willing to sniff out malpractices in the executive branch, as there would no longer be relevance in the talking point of “letting the voters decide” and, to the president's duty, with more power comes a greater burden of responsibility. 

In Hegel’s words, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of dusk.” Wisdom manifests itself only with time, for history (and in this case politics) moves too fast. Time alone is never a justification for constitutional change, but we have seen the institution of the presidency falter and misstep too often to let it continue to decay. In truth, this amendment I propose now is by no means flawless: it cannot fix every problem in the presidency, and it will likely create new obstacles which must be overcome. But if we look back over its history, at a time when public faith in the institution is at a record low, and fail to act in some meaningful way, we will have abandoned our chance to leave a mark on our government, to right what is wrong, and to strive to that golden standard of a more perfect union. 

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