Presidential Primer #4: How long does the President serve?

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Above: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only person ever elected President of the United States more than twice. He was elected to four consecutive terms starting in 1933 until his death in 1945.

The President’s term of office was defined in the Constitution, Article II, Section I as follows:

“He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years”

Notice that there is no mention of the number of terms the President could serve. There were no term limits in the original Constitution.

George Washington, the first President, felt strongly that one should only serve a maximum of two terms and he actually preferred only one term. He stood for election a second time only because he was told the country needed his leadership desparately in its first years.

Amendment XX was ratified January 23, 1933 to clarify the term of the President.  Section I of the Amendment states:

“The terms of the President and Vice President shall  end at noon on the 20th of January”

Previously their terms ended on March 4th of the year following the presidential  election, but this was not a constitutional requirement. March 4, 1789 was the date that the first U.S. Congress convened in New York City, so that was the date selected for terms to end every four years. As a result of the Amendment now every four years on January 20th at noon the sitting president’s term ends and a new one is sworn in. If the incumbant president has won re-election then he too must be sworn in for his second term.

The new President is constitutionally required to take the oath of office as follows:

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”

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Above: President Abraham Lincoln taking his second oath of office in 1865. He is standing in the middle of the photograph.

Many Presidents have served two terms. President Grover Cleveland even served two non-consecutive terms. Several have sought third terms, but were unsuccessful.

Finally after 151 years (1789 to 1940) a president was elected to a third term. This man was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who in fact even went on to a fourth term in 1944. This was unprecedented in American history.

As a result Amendment XXII was ratified February 27, 1951 to set term limits. This reads as follows:

“No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.”

Further it went on to exempt the sitting President (at the time Harry Truman): 

“But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this Article becomes operative.”

Truman had assumed the Presidency only one year into FDR’s fourth term (1945) so normally he would not be able to seek a second election. However, he was exempted by this Section. He did seek a second election but was unsuccessful.

That is why George W. Bush the sitting President as this is written, never again will be eligible to be elected President. The same holds true for the another recent two term President, Bill Clinton. Clinton is still relatively young but this amendment prevents him from trying again.

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