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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.

ForbzyT


quality posts: 9 Private Messages ForbzyT

It was Grover Cleveland. Ran 3 times, won the popular vote each time, but lost the Electoral College vote the second time. So, he served two non-consecutive terms.

You remember Grover - he's the one who said "Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote."

ffejie


quality posts: 0 Private Messages ffejie

What if a president serves two terms, then runs again as VP and finds himself taking over due to a resignation or death of the president? It's obviously excessively unlikely to run as VP after being president, but it seems like a loophole for a particularly popular or egotistical politician.

kbruton


quality posts: 1 Private Messages kbruton

Andrew Jackson.

grilgar


quality posts: 0 Private Messages grilgar
ffejie wrote:What if a president serves two terms, then runs again as VP and finds himself taking over due to a resignation or death of the president? It's obviously excessively unlikely to run as VP after being president, but it seems like a loophole for a particularly popular or egotistical politician.



The VP is required to follow the same eligibility requirements as the President according to the 12th amendment. Therefore, a VP candidate could not be a previously seated, 2-term, President.

IIRC, during the 2008 Hillary campaign, the discussion around Bill ended up with the conclusion that he could be appointed VP to replace someone, but could not run as VP and get through the Electoral College.

jfbeam


quality posts: 0 Private Messages jfbeam

Ah, but what if you are never actually elected (or ran for election), but instead accend to the office, for less than 2 years, more than once? In theory, there's no limit to one's time in the big chair.

jonathanschwarz


quality posts: 0 Private Messages jonathanschwarz

What if Obama or W were to become Speaker of the House after their 2 terms, and then succeeded the newly sitting president and VP during the first couple months of their presidency... In theory it would end up being a 11+ year total. 8 as 2-term president, then 3.8 or whatever having succeeded the sitting pres and VP during the first couple months.

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

Guest Blogger

These are good questions!

I was also wondering if the 22nd Amendment is unambiguous on the possibility of the same VP serving out another president's term TWICE. Let's say Biden replaces Obama next year and serves <2 years. Then Hillary selects him as her VP (I know, but but bear with me) and dies 2 years later. He gets sworn in on Air Force One AGAIN. Joe has now served "less than two years of a term"...but twice. Is he constitutionally eligible to run for president once, or twice?

(I know, I know, he'd be too old. But hypothetically.)

patty1955


quality posts: 5 Private Messages patty1955

And what about Ford. He was never elected. Could he have been elected twice more? What if had been a succeeding VP and then ran for president?

X 11

stevemammarella


quality posts: 0 Private Messages stevemammarella

The 22nd Amendment doesn't impose any limits on the VP. Nor does it prohibit the reverse from happening - the VP taking over the Presidency multiple times BEFORE ever getting elected to the office.

While it's insanely unlikely to happen, it's conceivable that someone could be elected VP, then ascend to the Presidency. Instead of running for President when the term is up, they decide to run again as VP. Their Presidential eligibility isn't shot, since they've never been elected to the office and the 22nd guarantees at least one time being elected ("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").

In theory, they could be President for almost all of the 4-year term as many times as they wanted, so long as they've always run as the VP.

grilgar wrote:The VP is required to follow the same eligibility requirements as the President according to the 12th amendment. Therefore, a VP candidate could not be a previously seated, 2-term, President.

IIRC, during the 2008 Hillary campaign, the discussion around Bill ended up with the conclusion that he could be appointed VP to replace someone, but could not run as VP and get through the Electoral College.



nkoelsch


quality posts: 1 Private Messages nkoelsch
jfbeam wrote:Ah, but what if you are never actually elected (or ran for election), but instead accend to the office, for less than 2 years, more than once? In theory, there's no limit to one's time in the big chair.



There might be a lot of questions asked as to why the Presidents of said VP keep dying off or leaving office.

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jon98gn


quality posts: 30 Private Messages jon98gn
nkoelsch wrote:There might be a lot of questions asked as to why the Presidents of said VP keep dying off or leaving office.



Of course there are other ways of ascending the throne. Let's say the fast movement from the Speaker of the House if the POTUS and VP are incapacitated or removed.

\

daveinwarshington


quality posts: 31 Private Messages daveinwarshington
stevemammarella wrote:The 22nd Amendment doesn't impose any limits on the VP. Nor does it prohibit the reverse from happening - the VP taking over the Presidency multiple times BEFORE ever getting elected to the office.

While it's insanely unlikely to happen, it's conceivable that someone could be elected VP, then ascend to the Presidency. Instead of running for President when the term is up, they decide to run again as VP. Their Presidential eligibility isn't shot, since they've never been elected to the office and the 22nd guarantees at least one time being elected ("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").

In theory, they could be President for almost all of the 4-year term as many times as they wanted, so long as they've always run as the VP.



So, Obama could be Hillary's VP, then kill her, to become Prez again???

r3ronald


quality posts: 0 Private Messages r3ronald

I agree with the commentators above that argue there is no theoretical limit on the number of years someone can serve as president. Basic statutory interpretation would dictate that "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" means (i) only a VP elevated to the presidency following the death/removal of an ELECTED president has the potential to lose two-term eligibility (so if Gerald Ford died, Rockefeller would have been eligible to be elected president for two terms); (ii) nothing in the statute takes away two-term eligibility from someone who, however improbable, serves multiple "less than two year" stints as "replacement president."

In fact, any VP who succeeded to the presidency upon the death of a president who themselves ascended to the presidency from the office of VP could not lose two-term eligibility, no matter how long the initial term ran. We have never had a vice president ascend to the presidency and then die in office, which is likely why this has never been an issue.

The language of the 22nd Amendment is understandable, in light of the fact that it was written prior to the 25th Amendments presidential succession plan. But it is odd that (a) the drafters of the 22nd did not realize the need for a succession plan once they started drafting the 22nd; and (b) the drafters of the 25th did not take the opportunity to close the 22nd's "to which some other person was elected" loophole.

jatoghia


quality posts: 0 Private Messages jatoghia

Depending on how the question is phrased, both Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland are correct answers, in that both ran three times (each winning 2 of 3 elections) and each time had more popular votes than any of their opponents; however, Jackson did not have a true majority of the popular vote (just more than any other candidate) as the election of 1824 saw the electoral and popular votes divided among 4 candidates, mostly along regional lines. It thus becomes arguable whether or not Jackson actually "won" the popular vote; however, it is as meaningless as it is debatable, since the popular vote counts for absolutely nothing anyway.