First Time's a Charm

Why America should ditch the two-term presidency.

As the U.S. president struggles to assert his will and break a long season of political frustration and national impasse, both his enemies and his erstwhile supporters remain overly focused on him and his role in America's new age of gridlock. Those on Barack Obama's right see him as a hard-driven ideologue trying to frog-march Americans into an imagined socialist dystopia. Those to his left view him as pusillanimous, compromising and conceding his liberal beliefs to appeal to the mushy middle.

But what ails the United States has less to do with the personality traits and defects that Obama's critics, on the left and right, are so ready to identify, and more to do with the compulsions of the country's democratic routines. It's not Obama who is the problem; it's America's broken political system.

Those routines no sooner deliver a new leader into office than he is required immediately to begin a new campaign for reelection. In an age of heightened media scrutiny, where any mistake has the potential to go viral and can in hours destroy political ambitions, timidity and trimming invariably become the order of the day for even the most visionary leaders. One can enter office clear-eyed about how to tackle America's irrational energy consumption or its massive debt overhang, but policy fogs up fast when one is trying to keep potential funders and voters happy. So U.S. presidents spend their days waking to the prospect of bland compromise and turn in having abjectly sold out.

Americans pride themselves on their democracy -- by any standard an extraordinary achievement (though sometimes they wish it upon the rest of us a little too pressingly). But perhaps Americans need to reflect more self-critically on some of the basic premises of their own democracy, in a way more in line with the general spirit of self-improvement and experimentation that pervades American society.

Is it really such a great idea to require presidential leaders to spend so much of their first four years in office fixated on securing another four years in the same office? Each first-term presidency becomes in effect an election campaign in which presidents are condemned to making themselves likable rather than solving the country's problems -- forget about pushing through hard choices. Over the next few decades, much as its economy will have to be reimagined, America's democracy -- one of the most successfully adaptive political systems of the modern age -- is going to have to reinvent itself, too.

To get things started, how about doing away with the two-term presidency? Instead, establish one six-year term. (And here Americans shouldn't be put off by the lousy examples of countries that currently have six-year presidential terms, which include Russia and Mexico. It won't take much American ingenuity to make their own version work infinitely better.) The U.S. political system has, thanks to its founders, enough checks and balances, divided and countervailing powers, to minimize any damage that a six-year presidential term might produce. And fortunately, unlike my country of India, the United States has a deep bench of idealistic women and men who are willing to enter politics and who believe in government as a way of trying to improve their country.

Let them, then, have one long shot at writing themselves into the history books -- and at altering their country's path. Give them six years to focus on the job in hand, rather than on dialing for dollars and desperately avoiding anything that might alienate voters. A little less fascination with the individual officeholder, remarkable as the current one is, and a bit more attention to fixing the system might allow the next remarkable president to actually accomplish something.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images


A Hummer in Every Driveway

Americans use more energy per capita than any other country, and have nothing to show for it.

The problems that ail the U.S. economy and American society are one and the same: Both consume too much and refuse to make badly needed changes. This is true above all in the realm of energy. The United States doesn't need exotic biofuels or balloon-borne wind turbines. Its real problems are wasteful private energy use and the near-total absence of effective, down-to-earth, long-term policies.

Energy use is merely a means to many rewarding ends: economic security, education, health. The United States consumes nearly twice as much energy per capita as the richest countries of the European Union, which raises the question: What has it gotten in return? Are Americans twice as rich as the French? Are they twice as educated as the Germans? Do they live twice as long as the Swedes? Are they twice as happy as the Danes or twice as safe as the Dutch? The obvious answer for all of the above is no; indeed, many of America's quality-of-life indicators -- including infant mortality, longevity, and educational achievement -- do not even rank among the world's top 10!

It's not as though Americans don't know better. U.S. industries from steel-making to plastics synthesis are among the world's most energy-efficient; American agriculture is highly productive, as are America's railroads. But for decades, Americans themselves have been living beyond their means, wasting energy in their houses and cars and amassing energy-intensive throwaway products on credit. The size of the average American house has more than doubled since the 1950s, and they are more often than not poorly insulated, inefficiently heated in the winter, and cooled to near-arctic temperatures in the summer.

Automobiles are even worse. Incredibly, the overall efficiency of America's cars, vans, and SUVs didn't budge between 1986 and 2006, and subsequent improvements have been risible compared with the doubling of efficiency that the country's automotive fleet managed between 1975 and 1985. If that trend had continued -- which was well within the realm of technical possibility -- the average American would be driving a 50 miles-per-gallon vehicle now rather than today's 30 mpg clunker. And that's nothing next to what could have been saved had the United States finally joined the 20th century and built rapid trains on par with France's trains à grande vitesse to serve high-population-density regions such as the corridor between Boston and Washington. (Amtrak's Acela? Please.)

The parallels with America's great public-health epidemic of obesity are inescapable. Even after throwing away some 40 percent of its abundant food supply, the United States still has the industrialized world's most overweight population. America similarly produces more energy per capita than any other major rich economy -- so much so that if the United States were to consume that energy at a rate comparable to Germany or France, it would be a massive energy exporter. Instead, America imports more than 25 percent of its energy, paying more than $2 trillion for the privilege over the past decade -- and still ends up with little to show for it. The United States now faces the choice of curbing its energy appetite with deliberation, commitment, and foresight, or waiting for the unraveling economy to put it on a painful crash diet.

Javier Jaen