By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON: As I sat in the gallery Tuesday night watching President Obama give his State of the Union address, I found myself wishing we could repeal the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two terms.
Before Rush Limbaugh chokes on his doughnut, I should say that I wasn’t swept away by the magnificence of Obama’s oratory; at more than an hour, it was downright Clintonian. Nor do I have a desire to see this president’s inconsistent leadership extended beyond the next three years.
Rather, it’s a wish that future presidents, and future Americans, don’t have to endure the sort of farce we experienced Tuesday night: A president’s term effectively finished three years before it ends.
Yes, Obama remains commander in chief, and he apparently plans to sign so many executive orders he’s going to have to ice his fingers. But his “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone” strategy of executive action he outlined to Congress means he is abandoning anything resembling a serious legislative agenda for the rest of his tenure. That’s by necessity: His standing is diminished by the fact that he can’t run again, the race for his successor is beginning, and the opposition knows it can run out the clock on his presidency.
Much of this is because the 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951 in reaction to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms, almost guarantees lame-duck status. The president cannot be on the ballot, so opponents justifiably think they can wait him out — and media attention turns to the next presidential race.
The very suggestion of ending presidential term limits when a Democrat is in office causes a right-wing freak out, as happened a couple of months ago when New York University historian Jonathan Zimmerman made the argument in an opinion piece.
Last week, conservatives were reacting to Obama’s executive-order strategy by calling him a “dictator” (Rep. Randy Weber) and a “king” (Rep. Michele Bachmann) who is running an “imperial presidency” (Laura Ingraham) and staging a “coup” (Limbaugh). So let’s take dictator/king Obama out of the picture and say, as the 22nd Amendment did, that the repeal of term limits will apply only to presidents elected after it is ratified.
Conservatives may take delight in seeing this president hobbled, but the same happened to George W. Bush when his partial privatization of Social Security failed early in his second term and Hurricane Katrina cemented his lame-duck status. Then, the liberals were cheering the chief executive’s impotence and howling about his use of executive orders. Having a crippled presidency for three years isn’t good for the country — regardless of who’s in charge.
Certainly, many second-term woes have been less about lame duck status than about hubris, complacency and first-term mistakes catching up with presidents. But when a presidency has a constitutional expiration date, it increases the opposition’s incentive to stall. No wonder modern second terms have been almost uniformly successful.
Dwight Eisenhower’s average approval rating of 69.6 percent in his first term went to 60.5 percent in his second, according to Gallup. Lyndon Johnson (though he could have run again in 1968) saw his 74.2 percent approval in his first term fall to 50.3 percent in his Vietnam-plagued second term. Watergate-wounded Richard Nixon went from 55.8 percent to 34.4 percent. Bush’s approval level of 62.2 percent in his first term fell to 36.5 percent in his second. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton defied the pattern because of good economic times, but their second terms were dominated, respectively, by Iran-contra and impeachment.
There’s no movement for repeal, unless you count Democratic Rep. Jose Serrano of New York, who has introduced repeal legislation at the start of each of the last nine Congresses, to no effect. Perhaps there would be more enthusiasm for the change if lawmakers considered that the presidential irrelevancy encouraged by the 22nd Amendment is responsible for the sort of ennui in the House chamber Tuesday.
Not quite 33.3 million Americans watched the address, according to Nielsen, giving it the second-lowest rating since the organization began counting in 1993. Requests for seats in the press gallery were lower than usual. And those who tuned out didn’t miss much. The most talked-about proposal was an executive order that would, over time, raise the minimum wage for all of half a million federal contract workers.
That’s a big deal if you’re one of those workers. But the rest of the country shouldn’t have to wait three years for a first-term president to start up the machinery of government again.
Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @Milbank.