Why you should care
Because even the Founding Fathers thought this was a decent idea.
I hope you’re enjoying it, you greedy bunch. You can’t get enough of election season. Another year, another $5 billion spent on campaigning, more wall-to-wall coverage on every news channel of exhausted politicians, plastered with makeup to cover the bags under their eyes, shaking hands and holding babies. Don’t you just love it? Plus this year, there’s the added bonus that both major candidates are despised by most people. Isn’t it all deliciously exciting?
OK, maybe not. In November, the American public is going to pick what is, to many, the lesser of two evils, while the incumbent has relatively high approval ratings. Here’s a thought — why do we even need an election? In fact, let’s scrap the whole nightmarish election cycle that comes around every damn four years. Let’s elect presidents for life, starting with old Barry O. The president would still be constrained by the Constitution, Congress and the Supreme Court, and let’s say that a two-thirds Senate majority could boot the president out of office, if he or she doesn’t resign or kick the bucket first.
This is not a radical idea. At least “not in the context of the late 1780s,” says Eric Nelson, a professor of government at Harvard University. At the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton made a speech suggesting a presidential life term “on good behavior,” and four state delegations voted in favor of the motion (James Madison voted in favor for Virginia). George Washington even voted in favor from the chair. The argument was that a president for life would “forgo short-term political advantage, he won’t be partial, he won’t be factional, he’ll be a sort of impartial umpire,” explains Nelson. In the 18th century, the fear was that a president in it for the short term could be bought out by a foreign power; in the 21st, it’s that billionaire donors or dark money can buy a president. But, says Nelson, “you can’t buy the king of England.”
Even Plato thought that “philosopher kings or queens” should rule for life after a long and arduous education process, to ensure they have the “knowledge and disposition” to rule for the long-term good of the people, says Melissa Lane, a professor of politics at Princeton University. And this ancient philosophy has some relevance today, when politicians often serve their own private interests of re-election or party politics. There’s a good reason we don’t elect justices to the Supreme Court, or bankers to the board of the Federal Reserve. “It really takes a while to grab hold of the levers of authority in Washington, and four years may be too short,” says Mark Peterson, chair of UCLA’s department of public policy. Plus, with the rapid cycle of House elections, “that four-year window for incoming presidents really becomes a two-year window,” says Peterson, “and that does not lead to the most thoughtful, comprehensive and negotiated solutions to complex problems.”
Of course, there is one teensy-weensy drawback: The U.S. could go the way of Zimbabwe and end up with a megalomaniacal, tyrannical dictator. And sure, that’s a valid concern. It might be possible, says Peterson, for an individual to exploit political discourse and world events such that “Congress would become reticent about checking presidential action.” Elections hold politicians to account, provide legitimacy for policy directions and force a regular public debate on important issues, all of which are undeniably good things.
So while we’re tinkering around with the Constitution, let’s also provide Congress with some more checks on presidential power, such as reducing the near-absolute power of the president in foreign affairs and giving Congress the power of nominations to the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve and other bodies. After all, presidential power is not only about the length of the term but also what powers we choose to invest in the president. I’m not suggesting Obama become Robert Mugabe, more like a Queen Elizabeth.
“Nobody should be president for life,” Obama said in a 2015 speech to the African Union. Damn it, Barack, we want you back. Forty more years, anyone?