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Trump can only serve 4 more years. The reason why has a long and sordid history

The exterior of the White House is seen from outside the security fencing on March 7, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Sarah Silbiger
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Getty Images
The exterior of the White House is seen from outside the security fencing on March 7, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

As president, now-former President Donald Trump once teased that "president for life" sounds pretty "great."

"Maybe we'll have to give that a shot some day," Trump told donors in 2018 about China's President Xi Jinping.

When he was still allowed on Twitter, Trump retweeted a video manipulating a magazine cover showing him as president in 2024 through the year 90,000, or "4eva" as one of the yard signs in the video reads.

Whether Trump was serious or not, who knows? But if he does run in 2024, as he's been heavily suggesting he will, and wins reelection, he can only serve four more years in the White House. That's because of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. It reads (bolding for emphasis is NPR's):

"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. But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed by Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term."

The amendment says nothing about non-consecutive terms, simply that no one can be elected "more than twice." It allows for holding office a maximum of 10 years, but only if someone assumed office without being elected and served as president for less than two years.

Lyndon Johnson served less than two years — 14 months — after John F. Kennedy was assassinated before taking office after winning election himself in 1964. Johnson, who ultimately did not run in 1968, could have served four more years if he had and won, for a total of a little over nine years in office.

The fact that Trump can only serve four more years is something that could become a political argument — publicly and privately — from Republicans building a case against backing the former president.

Why go with Trump, their argument might go, when he can only serve four more years and you could vote for someone else who could give you eight?

What's more, electing Trump in 2024 would mean an "open" presidential election campaign four years later, putting conservatives at a disadvantage without an incumbent president able to run for reelection.

Trump's former attorney general, Bill Barr, who has since broken with Trump over his election lies, made a resemblant argument. Republicans, he told CBS News, could "really achieve a decisive victory with the right candidate, but I don't think Trump is that candidate. The day he's elected he'll be a 78-year-old lame duck who is obviously bent on revenge more than anything else."

The history of the 22nd Amendment — and frequent calls for getting rid of it — has been long and sordid.

Let's go back to the beginning.

How the 22nd amendment came about

The framers of the Constitution hotly debated how — or whether — to set term limits on a president. Most framers actually didn't want them, in part, because they wanted the country to have flexibility during an emergency.

There were some 200 attempts, in one way or another, in the years following the Constitutional Convention, to pass legislation setting a limit on a president to no avail — until the mid-20th century, following the 1945 death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who eschewed the tradition and was elected four times.

The 22nd Amendment was finally ratified in 1951, making permanent something that had become a convention when George Washington decided not to serve more than two terms.

But since the 1980s, there have been multiple efforts to repeal it, and presidents have wondered out loud what it would be like if they could run for a third term, confident they would win again. One even spoke out against the 22nd Amendment. (More on all that below.)

Limiting a president to two terms became a controversial national subject in the late 19th century after Ulysses S. Grant was reelected in 1872, according to The Twenty Second Amendment: A Practical Remedy or Partisan Maneuver, a paper written in 1990 by Stephen W. Stathis, a former longtime specialist in American history at the Congressional Research Service.

Powerful Grant allies began pushing the idea of a third term, and it became an issue in the 1874 midterms. Grant didn't comment on his intentions, which — combined with a lagging economy, white resistance to Reconstruction in the South and ethics scandals — led to Republicans losing a whopping 94 seats that year. It is considered to be the first midterm wave election.

The political winds appeared against a Grant third term, and shortly after the midterm drubbing, he said he "would not accept a nomination if it were tendered, unless it should come under such circumstances as to make it an imperative duty — circumstances not likely to arise."

In 1875, the House passed a resolution endorsing the two-term convention, saying departing from that would be "unwise, unpatriotic, and fraught with peril to our free institutions."

But that didn't have the teeth of an amendment or legally bar a president from doing so if they chose to. In fact, in 1880, Grant would try again — and came pretty close.

He led after 35 ballots at the 1880 Republican nominating convention that year. On the 36th, those opposed to him joined forces and handed the nomination to James Garfield instead.

Ironically, Republicans wound up leading the effort to enact the 22nd Amendment, beginning in 1946 when they regained the House. It was largely as a response to the unprecedented four terms won by FDR, who served during the Great Depression and World War II, from 1933 until 1945.

FDR broke the two-term norm, his supporters argued, because of the need for consistent leadership through World War II. But setting a term limit on the presidency became one of Republicans' first priorities after his death.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt speaks on a platform during his fourth presidential inauguration in 1944.
Keystone Features / Getty Images
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Getty Images
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt speaks on a platform during his fourth presidential inauguration in 1945.

Some Democrats saw the push as an insult to FDR's memory. But there were also many who were growing concerned that FDR had set a dangerous precedent. They argued that the amendment was "not an undemocratic restraint upon the popular will, but a democratic restraint upon any future, dangerously ambitious demagogue," according to Stathis' paper.

After lengthy negotiations — notably about whether the limit should be two four-year terms or one six-year term — the 22nd Amendment eventually passed Congress in 1947. And it was with the help of some strange bedfellows.

Republicans, many of whom were motivated by FDR's presidency and others concerned about safeguarding democracy, joined with Southern Democrats upset with then-President Harry Truman for continuing FDR's liberal economic policies.

Stathis' paper also notes that more Southern Democrats might have joined if they knew Truman would push forward with his civil rights program:

"Soon after the President sent his special civil rights message to Congress on February 2, [1948,] Governor Fielding L. Wright of Mississippi asked the Southern Governors' Conference to serve notice on Democratic Party leaders that they would no longer tolerate the repeated campaigns for enactment of civil rights legislation. Less than a week later, the Mississippi state legislature voted overwhelmingly for the ratification of the twenty-second amendment."

It seems par for the course in a country whose history and politics tend to revolve around money and race.

Trump is not the only president to fantasize about being president longer than two terms

After being out of office, Democrat Barack Obama said he thought he could have won a third term, if allowed.

"I am confident in this vision [of 'hope and change'] because I'm confident that if I — if I had run again and articulated it, I think I could've mobilized a majority of the American people to rally behind it," Obama said in a podcast episode with former senior adviser David Axelrod. "I know that in conversations that I've had with people around the country, even some people who disagreed with me, they would say the vision, the direction that you point towards is the right one."

Before that, Democrat Bill Clinton, asked if the Constitution would have allowed him to run again, would he?

"Oh, I probably would have run again," Clinton told Rolling Stone after the 2000 election, adding that he thinks he would have won. "Yes. I do. But it's hard to say, because it's entirely academic."

Clinton even floated that, given people are living longer, maybe the 22nd Amendment should be changed to include only "consecutive" terms.

In the 1980s, there was a real movement to try and get Republican President Ronald Reagan to run for a third term.

At a 1986 fundraiser for former Texas Gov. Bill Clements, Reagan revealed that, while flying to the national GOP convention two years earlier, he had at least thought about what it would be like to run for a third term, if he could.

Then-President Barack Obama, shown here at the White House in 2014 with former President Bill Clinton, said he thought he could have won a third term, if allowed. And Clinton even floated that, given people are living longer, maybe the 22nd Amendment should be changed to include only "consecutive" terms.
Charles Dharapak / AP
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AP
Then-President Barack Obama, shown here at the White House in 2014 with former President Bill Clinton, said he thought he could have won a third term, if allowed. And Clinton even floated that, given people are living longer, maybe the 22nd Amendment should be changed to include only "consecutive" terms.

"In fact, flying over the convention center this morning," he said, "I started asking myself, 'I wonder how folks down there would feel about giving it one more try?' "

That received thunderous applause. "Thank you for that," he said, "but I'm kidding, of course.''

At a later event, Reagan was more explicit. After being greeted with chants of "four more years," he voiced his opposition to the 22nd Amendment.

"Well, I have to tell you, I think it should be changed," he said, "because I think it's only democratic for the people to be able to vote for someone as many times as they want."

Reagan argued that it should be for future presidents only, not necessarily for him, but that didn't stop Republicans from fundraising off it and pushing the idea of repealing it.

"Ronald Reagan is one of the greatest American presidents of all time, and I want to keep him on the job," read a fundraising letter from Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, R-Mich., then chairperson of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is responsible for trying to help elect Republicans to the House.

Vander Jagt proposed a bill in 1986 to repeal it. "The 22nd Amendment is an insult to American voters, who are wise and well-informed," he said.

It went nowhere. But that didn't stop other, some fairly powerful, people from trying through the years.

In addition to Vander Jagt, who continued to introduce his amendment all the way through the George H.W. Bush administration, now-Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell introduced one of his own in 1995.

"I intend to introduce a constitutional amendment, which would repeal the 22nd Amendment because that, too, denied voters the opportunity to choose their president," he said at the time.

(1) The economy improving, Reagan won 49 states in his re-election bid; (2 & 3) since he left office, some talked wistfully about changing the Constitution to let him run again.
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(1) The economy improving, Reagan won 49 states in his re-election bid; (2 & 3) since he left office, some talked wistfully about changing the Constitution to let him run again.

McConnell wasn't alone. That same year, after Clinton had won reelection, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., also introduced 22nd Amendment repeal legislation. He continued to introduce it all the way through Republican George W. Bush's presidency.

New York Rep. Jose Serrano began introducing similar repeal bills in 1997, but when he introduced one in 2013, after Obama won a second term, it spurred allegations of an effort to make Obama "president for life."

Polarization being what it is in modern politics, it's highly unlikely a repeal of the amendment would ever happen. Just think of the bipartisan hoops it would have to go through to become reality: it would need the support of two-thirds of the Senate and the House, and then three-quarters of state legislatures within seven years.

And with a Trump candidacy looming, Democrats now would be firmly opposed.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 7, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly described the method of communication Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, R-Mich., used in 1986. It was a letter. Additionally, a photo caption incorrectly stated when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's fourth presidential inauguration took place. It was January 1945.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.