The original United States Constitution had nothing written about how many terms a president could serve. However, the 22nd Amendment clarified the matter with presidential term limits.
How many terms can a president serve?
According to the constitution and the 22nd Amendment, a president can only serve for two terms in the United States. The length of a full presidential term is four years.
Presidential Term Limits
Some countries’ leaders seem to have an indefinite period of rule with no term limits. In Russia, Putin has been in charge for nearly two decades. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was in power from November 2005 until December 2021.
In the United States, constitutional laws stop one person from holding too much power for too long.
How Many Years Can a President Serve?
Under normal circumstances, a president serves four years or eight years. The eight years are split into two terms of four years each.
The current constitution with amendments states that a president can serve a four-year term from the inauguration and seek re-election.
If they successfully gain a second term, they cannot run for office again after finishing the second term.
Instead, the party must find a new nominee and campaign for them with the endorsement of the current leader.
Exceptions to the 2 Terms Rule
In some cases, the two terms rule isn’t so straightforward.
Some presidents don’t start their journey as President-Elect but instead enter office mid-term. Also, terms don’t have to be consecutive, and this two-term rule wasn’t always in force.
How Did Franklin D. Roosevelt Serve More Than Two Terms?
We are used to presidents serving for four years, seeking re-election, and then passing the baton at the end of a second term. However, this hasn’t always been the case.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Was Elected 4 Times as President
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected into office four times, although he only served a fraction of the fourth before his death.
His popularity and the success of his policies throughout his presidency meant he could easily win re-election with the party’s and voters’ support.
His full presidency ran from March 4th, 1933, to April 12th, 1945, which saw the nation past the Great Depression, through the New Deal, and into the Second World War.
How many years did FDR serve?
FDR served just over 12 years, three full terms and one partial term. He was elected for a fourth but died after just two months and 23 days into his fourth term.
Did Any Other President Try for a Third Term?
The 22nd Amendment limiting the president to serving two terms was introduced to the constitution quite late. Therefore, you may expect to see more three-term presidencies before.
However, this wasn’t the case. Roosevelt was the only one to achieve that accomplishment. This is because of a combination of factors regarding the health and popularity of two-term presidents.
There was also an unwritten agreement to stick to two terms. The idea of a two-term limit had been around since the Constitutional Convention, and both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were said to be in favor.
However, this wasn’t the case for everyone, as some presidents wanted to continue. Ulysses S. Grant was one of them and made different bids for re-election.
There was an initial plan to stay on and try for re-election for a third consecutive term in 1876, but a negative opinion persuaded him not to. Still, he put himself up for nomination in 1880 and lost to James Garfield.
What Changed To Limit the President to 2 Terms?
The country needed an amendment to the constitution to prevent lengthy presidential runs like Roosevelt’s.
The 22nd Amendment states that,
“no person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice”
This came from House Joint Resolution 27 following the death of Roosevelt. It took three years and 343 days for the ratification process to reach completion on February 27th, 1951.
There was a vital caveat to this amendment that affected the presidency of the incumbent president Harry S. Truman. As the amendment was to apply to future presidents, he could have served more than two terms.
However, this grandfather clause ended up being unnecessary. Truman could have sought re-election in 1952 even though he served one full term and most of Roosevelt’s fourth. But, an approval rating of 27% was enough for him to step aside.
Can a President Serve for More Than 8 Years?
The rules about whether a president can serve for more than eight years become a little complicated.
A presidential term is fixed to four years, with the inauguration always on the same date, January 20th. This means that two full presidential terms add up to 8 years.
It is also interesting to measure the length of a president’s time in office by day. All two-term presidents served for 2,922 days apart from Washington’s 2,865.
Washington took power before it was decided to have all terms begin on March 4th. This later switched to January 20th. However, there is a potential situation where a president could serve for ten years. It all depends on how they come to power.
The 25th Amendment is a great tool to protect the president’s office and ensure that the right person is in charge at all times. There are plenty of examples of presidents that didn’t see the end of their term.
Impeachment, death by natural causes, and assassination all meant that the nation could have been without a leader until the next election if there wasn’t someone to fill in. This role typically falls to the vice president unless there is a reason to go further down the line of succession.
A vice president may be sworn in directly after the death or removal of a president from office and then seek to be nominated as the party candidate at the next election.
The second clause of the 22nd Amendment states the following:
“no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once”
Therefore, if that original partial term didn’t exceed two years, presidents can stand again after a successful full term. The opportunity is there for a president to serve for 10 years.
However, this has never happened. In a few cases, presidents took over mid-term and went on to be elected themselves, but none went any further.
Lyndon B. Johnson’s Potential for a 9-Year Term
The best example of a modern-day president to come close to serving more than 2 terms is Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson initially came to power from his role as vice president. Kennedy was assassinated with over a year left in his term, and Johnson took over immediately.
After completing this term, Johnson was re-elected by a landslide in 1964. The rule on the length of the partial term meant he was allowed to run again in 1968.
This was considered, but Johnson ultimately pulled out due to health and political reasons. There were fears about his heart and his handling of the Vietnam War.
Do Presidential Terms Have To Be Consecutive?
No rule states that a president must take on their second term in office directly after their first. However, it is rare to see non-consecutive terms in office.
Many late 20th and early 21st-century presidents succeeded in their bids for direct re-election.
Before Trump failed in his attempt for re-election, three presidents achieved two consecutive terms. Bill Clinton won the election in 1992 and remained in office until 2000. Here power switched parties, with Bush Jr. taking the presidency.
In 2008 Bush had to step down, and his successor fought for election against Barack Obama. Obama held office until 2016, when President Trump won the election.
Grover Cleveland’s Non-Consecutive Terms
Presidents who lose re-election are entitled to try again later in life. Those eight years in power could be pretty far apart if the same person doesn’t stay in office for more than those two terms.
There have been many attempts to be re-elected later, but only one was successful.
Grover Cleveland came to power on March 4th, 1885, and served his full four-year term until 1889. He lost the bid for re-election in the 1888 election. But that didn’t stop him from trying again in the next race.
Not only did he achieve the party nomination, but the public voted him back into the White House during the 1892 election. He would then serve his second full term – as the 24th President of the United States – from March 4th, 1893, to March 4th, 1897.
President Grover Cleveland is the only United States president to serve 2 non-consecutive terms.
Presidents That Tried for Non-Consecutive Terms and Failed
It is a tough process to win back the trust of a party and supporters after one failed attempt, especially if a political landscape evolves beyond the ideas that got you into power.
Some former presidents have tried to regain their party nomination and return to office, while others evolved in a different direction.
Martin Van Buren’s attempt to regain the Democratic nomination
Van Buren was one of a few presidents that did not retire gracefully and leave politics to younger men. He was up for re-election in 1840 but lost, leading him to retire.
Dissatisfied with the outcome, he returned to political life in 1844 to fight for the nomination.
He came close but lost to Polk. By the time the 1848 election came around, there was growing tension between Van Buren and the Democratic Party, and his chances of nomination were even slimmer.
So, he decided to run as a candidate for the Free Soil Party. This got him on the ballot again for the first time in eight years but didn’t earn him many votes.
Teddy Roosevelt’s attempt to remove Taft from power
One of the most interesting cases of a president trying their luck numerous times is that of Teddy Roosevelt. His initial run consisted of a partial term of three years, five months, 18 days, and then one full term following his election.
At this point, Roosevelt passed the torch to William Howard Taft and declined to run for a second full term.
At this point in history, it would have been legal, according to the constitution, for him to continue as president.
The problem was that he regretted his endorsement after Taft’s election in 1908, which led him to challenge Taft for the nomination in 1912.
Taft retained the Republican nomination, so Roosevelt tried a different approach to oust him from power.
He formed the Bull Moose Party (officially known as the Progressive Party) to challenge as a third-party independent.
The vote was split between the two similar parties, leading the Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the race.
Could We See Non-Consecutive Presidential Terms Again?
One of the curiosities about the rules for running for president is that there is a lower age limit of 35 but no upper limit. Therefore, there is nothing to stop former single-term presidents from running again four or even eight years after a failed bid.
The flip side is that you now have presidents getting on in years when they take office for the first time. This limits the chances of future campaigns for non-consecutive terms.
We currently have two former presidents who served a single term and could theoretically come back.
The odds of Jimmy Carter getting back into politics and the White House are incredibly low, given that he is nearly 100.
There is always speculation about Donald Trump trying again in 2024. If Donald Trump does stand, he will be 77 years old when he enters the White House.
Then there is Joe Biden, who will be 83 when he finishes his first term in office.
Two-term Presidencies Are Here To Stay
The presidential term limit may be a little more complex than it first appears, but it is an essential part of presidential rule in the United States.
Even before the ratification of the 22nd Amendment, there was an unwritten agreement that two terms were more than enough. This is unlikely to change.