Would the United States really be better off with six-year presidential terms?
Sunil Khilnani ("What Ails America?: The Presidency," November 2011) argues that Americans would be better off with a president limited to a single six-year term. Banning second terms might be tempting given that every second term in recent history has involved some scandal or failure: Watergate, Iran-Contra, Lewinsky, Abramoff, the 2008 financial meltdown. But would a single six-year term really improve things? Presidents might take bigger risks or exhibit bad judgment once they know they won't face voters again.
Khilnani cites the distraction of raising money for reelection, but he treats a relentless fundraising schedule as a de facto requirement of the job when it is in fact a choice. Incumbent presidents do not have difficulty raising money. In fact, the last major-party candidate to have serious issues with money was Bob Dole in 1996.
As of October, President Barack Obama had raised $155 million for his reelection campaign, outpacing all his Republican challengers combined. If he refused to raise another dime until Election Day, he would still be fine. Incumbent presidents also don't have to worry about getting their messages out; television cameras follow them wherever they go. What's more, taxpayers pick up most of the tab for their transportation expenses when they fly Air Force One for trips that include some "officially non-campaign" business.
It is easy to suspect that Obama's relentless fundraising schedule is not about money. At those high-dollar fundraisers, the president is surrounded by adoring crowds, all convinced he's doing a terrific job and enthusiastic enough to pay five-figure sums for the honor of telling him so. For a president who has endured a frustrating three years and currently suffers low approval ratings, basking in donors' adulation must feel like a warm bath on a cold night.
Sunil Khilnani replies:
Jim Geraghty worries that presidential fundraising efforts that distract from the task of governing have less to do with money and more to do with a psychological need for compensatory adulation felt by down-in-the-dumps incumbents. That might be, but campaign fundraising is a major time suck not just for presidents seeking second terms but for the entire American political class. Ask any member of Congress how much time she or he spends dialing up lists supplied by aides. More importantly though, my argument was not just about the distractions of fundraising; rather, it was about pointing out that officeholders skew everything they do simply to avoid putting a foot wrong. They become professional trimmers rather than the leaders they were elected to be. Being a leader involves taking risks, and indeed those can sometimes go wrong, as Geraghty also worries. It's likely that presidents will try to summon the best judgment they can when making such decisions. Still, leaders are supposed to be achievers, not appeasers.