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Term limits on presidents are a good thing. Here’s why.
January 28, 2016

an hoursBy Stephen Kaufman

The concept of “president-for-life” appeals to some people. But for most of us, term limits are a welcome check on authority.

President Obama likely will hear some supporters chant “Four more years!” at upcoming political events. But he won’t take it seriously.

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 support their current leader and want the 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.
  • The need to change leadership encourages a rising generation of political leaders, 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.

You can learn more about democratic institutions and the electoral process with the YALI Network’s three-part online course Understanding Elections and Civic Responsibility. Take all three lessons, pass the quiz and earn a free YALI Network certificate.