How Many Years a President Can Serve in the White House

What the Constitution Says and Doesn't Say About Term Limits

How long can a president stay in office? illustration

Illustration by Lara Antal. ThoughtCo.

U.S. presidents are limited to serving two elected four-year terms in the White House and as many as two years of another president's term. That means the longest any president could serve is 10 years, though no one has been in the White House that long since Congress passed the constitutional amendment on term limits.

How many years a president can serve in the White House is spelled out in the 22nd amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states "no person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice." However, if an individual becomes president through the order of succession they are allowed to serve an additional two years.

Why Limited to 2 Terms

The amendment defining limits on how many terms can a president serve 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.

Before the 22nd Amendment, the Constitution 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.

Before the ratification of the 22nd Amendment, Democrat 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.

Congressional Republicans proposed the 22nd Amendment in response to Roosevelt's four election victories. Historians have written that the party felt such a move was the best way to invalidate and discredit the popular progressive's legacy.

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."

American presidents are elected for four-year terms. While the 22nd Amendment limits presidents to two full terms in office, it also allows 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.

History

The framers of the Constitution originally considered a lifetime appointment by Congress for the president. When this proposal failed, they discussed whether the president should be elected by either the Congress, the people, or something in between, such as the Electoral College (which was eventually chosen) and whether term limits should be imposed.

The idea of an appointment by Congress, with the option for re-appointment, failed on the fear that a president could make an underhanded deal with Congress to get re-appointed.

Can't Serve a 3rd Term

Conspiracy theorists have through the years perpetuated the notion that power-hungry presidents try to find ways to win a third election.

A few people even point to the wording of the 22nd Amendment, noting that it says no person shall be eligible to be "elected" to the office more than twice. Would this disqualify a former president from being elected vice president, then "serving" as president if the president died or resigned?

It's unlikely any former president would run for the lower office of vice president to test the theory.

Over the years, several lawmakers have proposed repealing the 22nd Amendment. Congressional opponents of the 22nd Amendment argue that it restricts voters from exercising their will.

As Democratic U.S. Rep. John McCormack of Massachusetts proclaimed 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 lame-duck presidents.

"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."

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