The concept of “president for life” might appeal to some people. But for most Americans, term limits are a welcome check on authority.
U.S. presidents haven’t had the option to serve a third term since 1951. Even before that, most followed the example set by George Washington and never tried to stay in office for more than eight years.
South Africa’s Nelson Mandela famously kept his promise to serve only one term, despite public pressure to change his mind.
Some argue that term limits violate the will of voters who want a leader to continue, even if that would mean revising their country’s constitution. However, history has shown that term limits strengthen democratic institutions over the long term and help ensure peaceful political transition.
Because of term limits:
- Incumbents are less able to use the state’s institutions to manipulate elections or erode the power of rival branches of government and political adversaries.
- Leaders feel more pressure to deliver results and leave office with a positive legacy.
- Individuals, no matter how powerful and popular, cannot become indispensable.
- Political transitions are normal, regular, predictable events, so rival parties have little incentive to upset the system through coups or other means.
- A rising generation of political leaders emerges, bringing fresh ideas and possible policy changes.
It sounds like a paradox, but even as term limits prevent a popular president from remaining in office, they promote the healthy competition needed to strengthen democratic institutions and the democratic process.
A version of this article was published on January 12, 2016.