In spirit, presidential elections are the same now as they were in 1820. Two candidates, after bashing the other’s personal and ideological record on the podium and in the media, are voted on by a group of unelected Electoral College members in November. However, today’s elections are focused on polls and numbers, not ideas and proposals. Today’s elections are about winning. At both summer party conventions 18 months ago, for Republicans in Tampa and Democrats in Charlotte, the election was about the opposing candidate, not the country’s path. Speakers from both sides presented vague promises of budget and welfare reform, both candidates eschewing specifics for fear of alienating voters. It was not about “what I can do for you” but “what he will do to you.”
Herein lies the problem with the American political system, one centered far too much on electioneering and the desires of special interests. The growth of populism and political brinksmanship in Washington have prompted the need for a president free of the burden of re-election. Our nation, now more than ever, needs a president with the ability to make tough decisions and be the voice of reason among D.C. political squabble. The means to accomplish this: a single six-year term.
I am hardly the first to harbor this opinion. The idea was proposed at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, where our Founders weighed it alongside other stipulations aimed at insulating the presidency from direct democracy. Afraid of mob rule and populist control of the government, our Founding Fathers insulated both senators and the Oval Office from a direct popular vote. In doing so, they attempted to preserve the country’s democratic spirit and the freedoms of its citizens while bestowing their leaders with a unique balance of autonomy and accountability—allowing them to listen with their hearts but also lead with their heads.
Since then, 184 amendments to this effect have been introduced in Congress, and nine former presidents—from Andrew Jackson in the 1820s to Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon in the 1970s—have pushed for this reform. As it stands, presidents seeking re-election have barely any time before they must concern themselves with election politics. Estimates for the gap between a president’s inauguration and his return to campaigning range from two years to much sooner, like Thomas Friedman’s 100-day theory. Some argue campaigns never stop courting wealthy donors in a post-Citizens United political landscape where it could take a billion dollars to win an election.
The benefits of this proposal go beyond giving the president a longer political leash. Without having to worry about reelection and voting along party lines, presidents could advocate centrist compromises between the current extremist parties. They wouldn’t be seen as partisan, and as such would accrue both political capital and moral authority on issues. Presidents would not have to pander to the public and endorse populist proposals of questionable merit, such as limitless welfare reform and tax breaks. For example, Obama would not have needed to offer the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts to achieve the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Presidents would truly be able to make hard choices and pursue the substantial reforms that they are typically only able to accomplish in their first two years, such as Bush tax reform or Obamacare, based on post-election political capital.
Arguments against this proposal hold that it is anti-democratic and antithetical to American ideals. Historian Arthur Schlesinger argues that the idea is “profoundly anti-democratic” to assume “people are so wrongheaded and ignorant that presidents should be encouraged to ignore their wishes.” But the notion that a president with a six-year term would have dictatorial power ignores the checks and balances present in our system. Not only does the Supreme Court prevent acting presidents from unconstitutional expansion of executive power, but Congress provides a large legislative check on the Oval Office. Midterm elections already provide a referendum on the quality of the job the president is doing; in a six-year term, that wouldn’t change. A president would still be held accountable to public opinion, but wouldn’t have to make every choice with re-election in mind. George Bush Sr. could have afforded to take a stronger stance on taxes; Clinton could have kept the Glass-Steagall Act, possibly postponing the causes of our current recession. Similar arguments that the president would be a six-year “lame duck” fail to pass the same midterm election litmus test. Oppositional parties must either compromise with the president or run the risk of losing spots during midterm elections.
In a political climate where pork barrel projects sour legislation and waste valuable federal dollars, there is a need for elected officials free of the demands of reelection campaigns. Compromise is not a dirty word; a country solves no problems if divided. Hyperpluralism has forced presidents to account for the every individual’s opinion except the one that matters most—a president’s own. Leaders are elected to lead, not to follow. The path is not without its risks, but the potential reward—a president who can take this country off the path of uncertainty and put it back on the path to prosperity—would be invaluable.
David P. Freed ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an applied math concentrator in Mather House.
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