Why Presidents Can Serve Only Two Terms

Why a Constitutional Amendment Limits Presidents to Eight Years

Obama inauguration
Barack Obama was the subject of rumors that he would run for a third term despite a constitutional limit on the number of presidential terms to two. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News

The number of presidential terms is limited to two under the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which reads in part: "No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice." Presidential terms are four years each, meaning the most any president can serve in the White House is eight years.

Related Story: The Debate Over Term Limits

The amendment defining limits on presidential terms was approved by Congress on March 21, 1947, during the administration of President Harry S. Truman.

It was ratified by the states on Feb. 27, 1951.

Presidential Terms Not Defined in Constitution

The Constitution itself did not limit the number of presidential terms to two, though many early presidents including George Washington imposed such a limit on themselves. Many argue that the 22nd Amendment merely put on paper the unwritten tradition held by presidents of retiring after two terms.

There is an exception, however. Before the ratification of the 22nd Amendment, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to four terms in the White House in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944. Roosevelt died less than a year into his fourth term, but he is the only president to have served more than two terms.

Presidential Terms Defined In 22nd Amendment

The relevant section of the 22nd Amendment defining presidential terms reads:

"No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and 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 President more than once."

When Presidents Can Serve More Than Two Terms

American presidents are elected for four-year terms. While the 22nd Amendment limits presidents to two full terms in office, it also allows for them to serve two years at most of another president's term. That means the most any president can serve in the White House is 10 years.

Conspiracy Theories About Presidential Terms

During President Barack Obama's two terms in office, Republican critics occasionally raised the conspiracy theory that he was trying to mastermind a way to win a third term in office. Obama fueled some of those conspiracy theories, though, by saying he could have won a third term if he were allowed to seek it.

“I think if I ran, I could win. But I can’t. There’s a lot that I’d like to do to keep America moving. But the law is the law, and no person is above the law, not even the president,” Obama said during his second term.

Obama said he believed the office of the president should be "continually renewed by new energy and new ideas and new insights. And although I think I am as good of a president as I have ever been right now, I also think that there comes a point where you don't have fresh legs."

The rumors of a third Obama term begin even before he had won his second term. Just before the 2012 election, subscribers to one of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's email newsletters warned readers that the 22nd Amendment would be wiped from the books.

"The truth is, the next election has already been decided. Obama is going to win. It's nearly impossible to beat an incumbent president. What's actually at stake right now is whether or not he will have a third-term," wrote an advertiser to subscribers of the list.

Over the years, though, several lawmaker have proposed repealing the 22n Amendment, to no avail.

Why the Number of Presidential Terms Is Limited

Congressional Republicans proposed the constitutional amendment banning presidents from serving more than two terms in response to Roosevelt's four election victories. Histories have written that the party felt such a move was the best way to invalidate the popular Democrat's legacy.

"At the time, an amendment limiting presidents to two terms in office seemed an effective way to invalidate Roosevelt's legacy, to discredit this most progressive of presidents," wrote professors James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn in The New York Times.

Opposition to Presidential Term Limits

Some congressional opponents of the 22nd Amendment argued that it restricted voters from exercising their will.

As Democratic U.S. Rep. John McCormack of Massachusetts proclaiming during a debate over the proposal:

"The framers of the Constitution considered the question and did not think they should tie the hands of future generations. I don't think we should. Although Thomas Jefferson favored only two terms, he specifically recognized the fact that situations could arise where a longer tenure would be necessary."

One of the most high-profile opponents of the two-term limit for presidents was Republican President Ronald Reagan, who was elected to and served two terms in office.

In a 1986 interview with The Washington Post, Reagan lamented the lack of focus on important issues and the lame ducks presidents became when their second terms began. "The minute the '84 election is over, everybody starts saying what are we going to do in '88 and focusing a spotlight" on potential presidential candidates," Reagan told the newspaper.

Later, Reagan expressed his position more clearly. "In thinking about it more and more, I have come to the conclusion that the 22nd Amendment was a mistake," Reagan said. "Shouldn't the people have the right to vote for someone as many times as they want to vote for him? They send senators up there for 30 or 40 years, congressmen the same."