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The Arrogance of Power and the Case For Presidential Term Limits

A week ago Larry Summers, the former Clinton Treasury secretary and Obama economic adviser, came out with this op ed piece that proposed a way of “ending presidents’ second term curse.” By curse, Summers’ refers to a recurring pattern of both legislative gridlock and political scandal that he believes characterizes the second term of presidents dating back at least to FDR’s presidency. As he summarizes, “Second presidential terms are almost without exception very difficult for the president and his team, for the government and for the country.” To break this pattern, Summers argues that we should consider a single presidential term of perhaps six years: “Would the U.S. government function better if presidents were limited to one term, perhaps of six years? The unfortunate, bipartisan experience with second terms suggests the issue is worthy of debate. The historical record helps makes the case for change.”

To be sure, Summers acknowledges that one reason second terms are problematic is that the 22nd amendment  essentially relegates presidents who win reelection to four years of lame-duck status. Restricting a president to a single-term without the possibility of reelection would only mean the president becomes a lameduck that much earlier. For Summers, however, the “problems caused by lame-duck effects are much smaller than those caused by a toxic combination of hubris and exhaustion after the extraordinary effort that a president and his team must exert to achieve reelection.”

What are we to make of Summers’ proposal? To begin, as Andy Rudalevige points out, there’s nothing particularly novel about Summers’ recommendation. In fact, delegates to the 1787 constitutional convention charged with drawing up a framework for the presidency initially gravitated toward establishing one seven-year presidential term.  Since then amendments to this effect have been proposed in Congress on at least 160 different occasions, dating back at least to 1826. Of perhaps greater significance, at least 15 presidents have endorsed a single presidential term. Clearly Summers’ proposal has a long and impressive pedigree.:

So why hasn’t it been implemented? To begin, not everyone agrees with Summers’ diagnosis, never mind his proposed solution. As Jonathan Bernstein points out, the roots of some of the second-term scandals and policy fiascos, such as Watergate or Bush’s Iraq debacle, actually trace back to a president’s first term. Moreover, it’s not clear that the imposition of formal term limits via the 22nd amendment significantly weakened a presidency whose previous occupants almost always adhered to the two-term limit by tradition. To this I would add that one reason second terms seem less productive is that most of the low-hanging legislative fruit is typically picked early during the president’s time in office, leaving the problems that lack either a ready solution, or political support – or both – for the second term. In short, the lack of legislative productivity may be more a function of dwindling opportunities for success, and not a president’s weakened political state. More generally, James Hedtke  finds no convincing evidence that second-term presidents are weaker as a result of their ineligibility to run again.

Nonetheless, as I have noted elsewhere in an argument that foreshadows Summers’, second terms do seem to present their own problems, usually in the form of policy overreach or scandal. The explanation seems rooted in part, I think, by a decline in presidents’ and their aides’ political sensitivity combined with a heightened focus on their historical legacy as their time in office winds down. The result is a greater tendency toward risk taking during a second term. If this diagnosis is true, however, it is not clear that a single six or seven-year term will obviate the problem since presidents who are ineligible to run again would lack any incentive to remain sensitive to constituents’ concerns. This has led some reformers to advocate repealing the 22nd amendment, thus effectively returning to the Founders’ original constitutional framework that allowed presidents unlimited eligibility to seek reelection.

Before embracing that proposal, however, it is worth looking more closely at why the 22nd amendment was passed. Analysts often assume it was Republican payback for the Democratic Franklin Roosevelt’s long tenure as president. But, as Michael Korzi’s excellent study of presidential terms limits reveals, while partisan payback was part of the impetus for the 22nd amendment, the debate in 1947 over the proposed reform was far more nuanced, and in many respects reprised the arguments for and against presidential term limits that were aired during the constitutional convention. Essentially, the debate pitted the Republican/Whig “constitutionalists’” concern to limit executive power against the Democrats’ “plebiscitary” model of leadership that sees a popularly elected president as, in Korzi’s words, “the engine of the U.S. political system, with the president deriving power from a strong connection with the American people.”

In assessing these competing visions, both sides too often forget that we have one empirical case in which to assess a president who broke the two-term limit: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In assessing the Roosevelt case, supporters of unlimited reelection often cite how the nation benefited from FDR’s willingness to serve a third term on the eve of World War II.  They argue that had the 22nd amendment been in place, we would have been prevented from drawing on his experience, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

However, rather than FDR’s decision to run for a third term in 1940, the more telling case for me is FDR’s decision to pursue a fourth term in 1944 despite obvious health issues. My concern here is not that FDR hid his failing health from the public – we have ample examples of presidents doing just that at all times in office.  Instead, the more worrisome aspect of his decision to run again is that FDR, and his aides, seemed not to fully grasp the implications of his failing health. As Korzi writes, “The impression one is left with is that FDR and advisers engaged in self-delusion on a rather large scale.” Despite FDR’s haggard appearance, not to mention his cardiologist’s diagnosis in March 1944 that FDR had serious heart disease, Korzi argues that the “artificial atmosphere” associated with FDR’s long tenure as president “promotes arrogance and even self-deception, as if the normal rule – in this case, the simple laws of physiology – are not applicable to the president.” One consequence of that arrogance is that FDR didn’t seem to pay much attention in 1944 to who his vice president was going to be, and after Truman was chosen, FDR failed to include him in any discussions of the major issues with which the President was grappling.

In magisterial study of the Presidency , Richard Neustadt notes approvingly, “Roosevelt had a love affair with power in that place.” Roosevelt, Neustadt writes, viewed the White House as “almost a family seat….and he regarded the whole country as almost a family property.” That conception of his place as president made FDR acutely sensitive, Neustadt argues, to protecting his sources of power in any decision he made. But there is a potential risk in this type of love affair – one exemplified, I think, by FDR’s decision to seek a fourth term. It is that presidents, and their advisers, may delude themselves into thinking they have become indispensable to the well-being of the nation. For most of our nation’s history, that temptation was held in check by virtue of the two-term tradition. As the plebiscitary mode of leadership has gained prominence, however, can we trust tradition alone to prevent presidents from seeking a third term? I, for one, am not willing to take that risk. If the 22nd amendment serves any purpose, then, it is to protect the nation against the arrogance of power associated with long tenure in office.

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IS, Noah, Watergate and Woodchucks

This week’s Sunday Shorts:

President Obama’s decision to engage in an open-ended air campaign designed to prevent the militant group Islamic State (IS) from expanding its territorial hold in Iraq has, predictably, been lambasted by critics on the Left and the Right. Progressives see it as a potential first step down the slippery slope of greater military involvement and a violation of Obama’s campaign pledge for a full disengagement of U.S. military forces from Iraq. Conservatives argue that it is too little, too late because it does nothing to prevent the Sunni extremist group from solidifying its territorial hold and using it as a base to destabilize the Mideast and, eventually, launch terrorist attacks against the United States. Lost in the storm of partisan handwringing, however, is any mention that Obama’s current policy roughly approximates the two “no fly zones” the U.S. and allies established after the first Gulf War ended in 1992, and which they enforced until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Those two no-fly zones were designed to protect the Kurdish minority in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south from attack by Saddam’s Hussein’s forces.  The difference is that the Islamic State lacks Hussein’s air capacity, but the intended effect is the same. And it was criticized as well, and for similar reasons. It is a reminder that the situational context is often more important than partisan principles when it comes to determining a president’s foreign policy choices. And it raises the distinct possibility that Obama’s current open-ended policy of targeted air strikes may be in place for a very long time.

In this earlier post, I argued that, without substantial congressional pressure, President Obama has no intention of showing his decisiveness by firing CIA director John Brennan despite Brennan’s admission that the CIA had accessed Senate Intelligence committee files.  Consistent with my argument, pundits are beginning to turn their ire on Congress for failing to apply that pressure.  For conservative pundits in particular, that lack of action is further reason to pursue other avenues to hold the President accountable, such as a legal suit. Whether Congress intends to apply that pressure remains to be seen.  My guess is members of the Senate Intelligence committee led by Senator Dianne Feinstein may barter Brennan’s survival for White House concessions regarding redactions to the Senate report on U.S. interrogation and rendition policies.

Speaking of suing the president, in this previous post I made the argument that the House Republicans’ vote to authorize Speaker Obama to do just that made perfect political sense, even though it was unlikely to gain any traction in the courts. Here’s the reason why:

As you can see by the breakdown in partisan support, Republicans who run on this issue in the upcoming midterms are banking on turnout from their base, while at the same time expecting a lower turnout from the Obama coalition which draws much more heavily on voters less likely to participate in a midterm elections.  So they see suing as a winning political issue.

Meanwhile, Timothy Noah has written an almost entirely speculative piece on whether Richard Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in, complete with misleading headline. Noah concludes that he did. To my knowledge, there is no evidence to support Noah’s assertion, with the exception of a claim by Nixon aide Jeb Magruder many years after the fact that he overheard Nixon authorize the bugging of Larry O’Brien’s phone in the Democratic party headquarters. However, this contradicts Magruder’s earlier claims and is not supported by any evidence from tapes or phone records. Indeed, Noah’s assertion seems undermined by the recordings of Nixon discussing the break-in, which on the whole indicate complete puzzlement on his part regarding why anyone would do something so stupid.

So, if there’s no evidence Nixon orchestrated the Watergate break in, this leads to the obvious question: who ordered Noah to write this opinion piece? I am skeptical that he would do something like this on his own. Was it Rachel Maddow? The head of MSNBC? Democratic political operatives trying to use Nixon against the Republicans this fall? Noah is clearly just the fall guy – some enterprising journalist needs to follow the viewers’ clicks trail to see who really benefits here.

Finally, what does it feel like to be President? I imagine it’s often something like this:

woodchuck

Have a great Sunday!

UPDATE 9.45 Monday:  A couple years back Jonathan Bernstein took on the “Did Nixon order the Watergate break in?” question and had pretty much the same reaction then as I did yesterday to Noah’s post:  http://plainblogaboutpolitics.blogspot.com/2012/06/why-dnc.html

 

 

 

A Switch in Time: How Nixon Might Have Survived Watergate

On Jan. 27, 1969, less than a week into the Nixon presidency, Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman relayed the following request from President Nixon to White House aide and former Time magazine executive editor James Keogh: “The President is most anxious to bring in an official White House historian to make sure that we maintain on a current basis an accurate record of the work of this administration.” Nixon even had a person in mind for the position: Professor Ernest May, a historian at Harvard University who had served on the Lindsay transition task force. More generally, Nixon sought someone “who has outstanding intellectual ability to analyze everything as it is happening in historical perspective and keep an accurate record… .” Here is the full memo from Haldeman to Keogh.

haldeman historian.1.27.69
On February 10, evidently after canvassing various White House aides regarding Nixon’s proposal, Keogh responded with a four-page memo to the President that began, “There are some serious questions involved in the recruitment of a White House historian. The first is the ultimate: Should there be a staff historian, as such, in the White House?” Would the President want an outsider sitting in during key meetings? Keogh’s answer, shown here at the bottom of the first page of his memo, was: “I would say he should not, for his presence surely would tend to inhibit what the President and others might say and do. And so the historian’s presence could have a negative effect not only on the Presidency but also on history.”

keogh historian 1

In addition to inhibiting conversation, Keogh warned that “any established historian that we might bring on would have very definite ideas about his own freedom of point of view.” That might mean a desire to prove “his credentials to his colleagues in the profession by being critical even if that meant doing so only for the sake of being critical.” Keogh also warned that “Loyalty is another problem” – someone who initially expressed support for the President might, over time and in reaction to events, change his views.

In seekng a “court historian” Nixon may have had in mind some counterpart to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the Harvard historian who served on JFK’s White House staff, and who used his position to write A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, a not uncritical but generally quite positive account of JFK’s presidency. But Keogh had other examples in mind, telling Nixon: “The recent track record on all this is not encouraging. Eric Goldman, professor of history at Princeton, was brought into the White House by Lyndon Johnson. He has just produced the Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, which can only be described as an anti-Johnson book.”

Keogh noted that he had discussed Nixon’s request with his immediate team of White House aides: “The consensus in this group is that this Administration should not bring in a historian as such. This position is based on the feeling that the risks are too high and the potential for positive results too low.” Rather than a court historian, Keogh suggested instead that aides be assigned to keep detailed notes of meetings, “recording the color, the tone, the asides for the general Administration record.” For more intimate conferences with the President “I see only one process. The people involved should as often as possible record their own impressions… .This also suggests that the President himself should, as often as possible, dictate his own thoughts and impressions… on tape or on paper…and on some kind of more or less regular schedule.”

We now know, of course, that Nixon did Keogh one better. In 1971, so as to provide a more accurate history of his administration’s proceedings, he had a secret taping system installed in the Oval Office, the Old Executive Office Building, the Cabinet Room and at Camp David. Conversations were recorded via this voice-activated system for more than two years, starting on February 16, 1971 through July 18, 1973. It was these tapes, particularly this so-called “smoking gun” tape dating from June 23, 1972, that provided clear proof that Nixon obstructed justice by trying to impede the investigation into the Watergate break in.

When a unanimous Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon must hand over the tapes to an independent prosecutor, and the transcripts of the tapes were made public, Nixon lost any hope of surviving the Watergate scandal. Forty years ago today, he officially resigned the presidency. It is tempting, of course, to surmise that if only Nixon had appointed a court historian, he might not have also seen the need to install a taping system. But that is probably not the case. From the moment they take office, all presidents, and their immediate advisers, are aware that they are making history and they understandably want to insure an accurate record of the events in which they participate.  But meeting notes can only go so far toward providing that record.  For this reason Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson all secretly recorded some White House conversations. Kennedy did so despite the presence of Schlesinger, Jr., as his White House “court historian”.

But these previous recording systems differed from Nixon’s in one key respect: they had to be manually activated by the President. This meant that they were forced to exercise a bit more discretion than Nixon did when deciding what to record for posterity.  Had Nixon been forced to activate his recording devices, he might never have decided to essentially tape himself admitting to crimes.  But in his memoirs Nixon defends the decision to install a voice activated machine: “I thought that recording only selected conversations would completely undercut the purpose of having the taping system; if our tapes were going to be an objective record of my presidency, they could not have such an obviously self-serving bias. I did not want to have to calculate whom or what or when I would tape.”  Alas for the future of his presidency, Nixon was initially “conscious of the taping, but before long I accepted it as part of the surroundings.”

“From the very beginning,” Nixon writes in his memoirs, “I had decided that my administration would be the best chronicled in history.”  Little did he know how prescient that statement was.  No subsequent president has, to my knowledge, kept any recording system in their White House, and for good reason. And, with the advent of e-mail, even the paper documentary trail is a less reliable history of a president’s time in office (although there are safeguards in place that are intended to preserve electronic messages as part of an administration’s presidential records).  Had Nixon been less conscious of the need to accurately record the events of presidency, he might have emulated his predecessors and utilized a manually-activated recording device.  But he did not.

For want of a switch, he lost the presidency.

The Real Lesson of Watergate

Beginning today, I’ll be posting at U.S. News & World Report’s online site once a week (typically on Friday) under the editorial direction of my former Middlebury student Rob Schlesinger and his team.  Since they prefer that I not crosspost their material here, I’ll link directly to the U.S. News site – you can read my full post there, but I still invite comments on particular posts here.

Today’s U.S. News post, not surprisingly, tries to correct misperceptions regarding the root cause of the Watergate scandal:

Tomorrow I’ll be back here with another trip to the archives – this one from the Nixon presidency, so keep this site bookmarked.

 

The President Is Dead. Long Live the President.

It’s Saturday – time for another trip to the presidential archives.  To understand the significance of today’s archival document, you need first to look at the document’s date: November 23, 1963. It is, of course, the day after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald. The memorandum from Kermit Gordon, the Bureau of the Budget director, to the new President is a reminder that even as the nation struggled to cope with this enormous tragedy, the wheels of government continued to turn despite the suddenness of the transition in power. (The BoB is the forerunner of today’s Office of Management and Budget). In the memo, Gordon tries to accomplish two objectives. First, he assures Johnson of his, and the BoB’s fealty to the new administration. In the very first section, Gordon describes the BoB’s central mission as follows, “The BoB is a staff agency to the President which, by tradition and in fact, has no constituency other than the Presidency and no obligations which complicate its allegiance to the President.” I think Gordon’s interchanging the words President and Presidency is significant – it shows his understanding that the BoB is in service to the Presidency as an institution as much as it is to the President as an individual politician. (Elsewhere Andy Rudalevige and I have written about the BoB’s commitment to protecting the interests of the presidency as an institution.

Gordon then moves to the topic of immediate interest: putting together the 1965 budget. He writes, “Despite the fact that the time is late, I know that you will want to make this budget your budget” (underscore in the original memo) before laying out the schedule of key dates in the budget process. Here’s the document, which came from Gordon’s file contained at the JFK Library.

 nov23, 1963

The document is an extraordinary testament to the ability of officials at the highest levels of government to continue to carry out their basic responsibilities, such as putting together the annual budget. But at the same time, these officials recognized that there was a new President, who had his own priorities. Shortly after this memo was drafted, Gordon sent in this memorandum offering his resignation. The letter begins, “Believing that a new President should have and exercise the widest freedom in the selection of the members of his official family….” and ends with Gordon’s offer to resign.

gordon resignation

Johnson did not accept the resignation and Gordon stayed on through 1965, helping LBJ craft his Great Society budgets. After his resignation Gordon became the President of the Brookings Institution where he used the think tank as a platform for both defending LBJ’s Great Society but also as a means for criticizing the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, Johnson would effectively capitalize on the need for continuity by citing JFK’s legacy as a reason to push through his Great Society program – but also to continue, and escalate, the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.

The President is dead. Long Live the President.