Terms of Service

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.

Contributing Editor
National Review

Washington, D.C.

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. 


Nuclear Fantasy

The executive director of Greenpeace International argues that the world needs less nuclear power, not more.

For a source of electricity that contributes to about 3 percent of global energy consumption, we are having an awfully big debate. Charles D. Ferguson ("Think Again: Nuclear Power," November 2011) and company seem to miss this point when they trot out a litany of lame claims about how nuclear energy is a climate-friendly panacea for energy security.

Even before the Fukushima meltdown, industry plans to double nuclear power capacity were in the realm of fantasy. Doubling current capacity would require a multibillion-dollar nuclear plant to come on stream every week for two decades. That's a far cry from the few reactors that become operational worldwide each year. Such a construction boom would only cut global carbon dioxide emissions by 3 to 4 percent.

Building a nuclear power plant currently takes more than a decade from inception to completion, rendering such plants irrelevant in stopping CO2 emission growth during this decade, a prerequisite for keeping global warming below catastrophic levels.

Contrast that with two or three years for a wind farm or less than a year for solar panels. Wind power already provides more affordable power than nuclear power plants, and the costs for solar panels are coming down faster than anyone could predict.

In the long term, measured in the half-lives of radioactive decay, nuclear power would produce radioactive waste that would threaten countless generations. Arguments for functioning radioactive-waste disposal sites are dangerously spurious, and the notion that any experience can be extrapolated over hundreds of thousands of years is a potentially deadly delusion.

Ferguson's dewy-eyed "jam tomorrow" promotion of nuclear power sounds like the bold promises of the 1950s nuclear barons and reminds me of the promise that electricity would become "too cheap to meter." As the bill for Fukushima continues to rise, we know that is simply not true.

Executive Director
Greenpeace International
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Charles D. Ferguson replies:

As an admirer of Kumi Naidoo's vision for transitioning the world from burning fossil fuels, I was perplexed to read the misinformed claims made in his letter about my purported "dewy-eyed 'jam tomorrow' promotion of nuclear power." On the contrary, my article clearly concludes that nuclear power "since its inception has been haunted by its early boosters' starry-eyed projections of incredibly cheap and abundant energy." I did not imply at all that nuclear power would become "too cheap to meter." As my article underscored and as Naidoo would agree, large nuclear plants have huge construction costs, and "nuclear power has never succeeded anywhere without enormous government backing."

I think the real difference of opinion is that I still foresee a significant role for nuclear power in the coming decades, while Naidoo wants to eliminate its use. Although nuclear power provides only 14 percent of the globe's electricity, several countries generate more than one-third of their electricity from this power source. The fact remains that China and India -- the two largest developing countries -- are committed to boosting their use of nuclear power as well as coal. Although Naidoo makes a fair point that wind power is becoming economically competitive and solar power's prices are dropping, these sources are intermittent. Thus, until reliable, large, and inexpensive energy storage systems are available, these renewable energies will need backup power sources such as coal, natural gas, oil, and, yes, nuclear power to ensure that electricity is there when people need it.