The Debunker: Can the President Serve Only Eight Years?

by Ken Jennings

In a series of “Debunker” columns from a few years back, Ken Jennings shattered a few beloved myths about the presidency—Abraham Lincoln didn’t write the Gettysburg Address on an envelope, JFK didn’t kill the hat. So why take on four more White House whitewashes this month? It’s a matter of some urgency: Ken has a fun new book out this month about such matters. So get ready to whistle along to “Fail to the Chief” as KJ blows up everything you thought you knew about the leader of the free world.

The Debunker: Can the President Serve Only Eight Years?

There’s a long tradition in the U.S. presidency of chief executives refusing to seek a third term: George Washington certainly could have, but said in his famous Farewell Address that he was too old. Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson followed Washington’s precedent and also stopped at two terms. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decisions to run for a third and fourth term were controversial issues in the 1940 and 1944 elections, but in the face of Nazi aggression in Europe (and a weak field of potential Democratic successors) he ran anyway—and won easily both times.

take that, hitler

In the wake of Roosevelt’s four-term presidency, Congress was squeamish about the future possibility of popular presidents serving indefinitely, and passed the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution on March 21, 1947. When the amendment was ratified in 1951, it prohibited any person from being elected to the presidency more than twice. (Harry Truman, the sitting president, was explicitly exempted, but he ended up never seeking a third term.) Since then, the 22nd Amendment has kept presidents from Eisenhower to Obama limited to two terms. As a result, it’s popularly believed that eight years is the longest any one man or woman can serve as president.

But that’s not quite what the 22nd Amendment says! It says that presidents can only be elected twice—or, if they have “acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President,” just once. But someone who accedes to the presidency upon the death or removal from office of his predecessor could still run twice—as long as they “filled in” for less than half of their predecessor’s term. So the legal maximum for the president today is ten years, not eight: two years after succeeding to the presidency, and then eight years by winning elections. In fact, Lyndon Johnson could have served for over nine years and two months had he chosen to run in 1968 and won—but the Vietnam War took care of that.

Quick Quiz: Besides Roosevelt, what U.S. president ran for office—and won the popular vote—three times?

Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.