The reasons are relatively simple. The mere possibility that a president has the option of running for a third term relieves his operational impotency in the second when both his opponents and his allies regard him with far less respect politically, especially during the final two years. The muscle needed to bring about results has atrophied even if the master of the White House is considered a strong caretaker.
Barack Obama is a perfect example. His chances of accomplishing much more than straightening out the mess in his one domestic initiative, the Affordable Care Act if that is even possible, already are slim with such issues as tax and immigration reform and controlling runaway entitlements probably not likely.
So in his case, the deficiencies in his ability to govern have begun a year early, and it would take an election miracle a year from now to give him the majorities needed in Congress, including recapturing the House and preserving, if not expanding control of the Senate, to change the outlook. Under the current circumstance that seems not only remote but slipping away with each new kerfuffle on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Just the right to run for a third term is all that is needed to keep off balance the political sharks that circle ever closer with utter disregard. Actually, as any high school civics student knows, before FDR no president had opted for the possibility of spending 12 years let alone 16 in such a demanding job. Several considered it but were dissuaded. But it was always out there for the aspiring wannabe successors to contemplate before stepping on the chief's toes.
Roosevelt's decision came as the nation faced two of its worst storms, the greatest depression in its history and a global conflagration that threatened world freedom, including ours.
"Changing horses in mid-stream," as FDR's 1940 slogan warned, was a bad idea and the country was comfortable with that even though those in the know realized that the president was in terrible physical shape beyond the crippling effects of polio. His blood pressure was off the charts and his physicians had no way of treating it beyond diet and exercise and reduction of stress, none of which were probable. Add to that the fact that he was a chain smoker and a lover of martinis, and the miracle was that he survived to run again in 1944.
It is no wonder that reaction to such an unprecedented tenure finally produced the term-limiting constitutional amendment. After all, hadn't the founders eschewed this sort of kingly approach to governance? Yes, but they also put no limits on the length of stay realizing that might produce a less effective presidency. They believed that most presidents would not want much longer than a second term as did George Washington, whose refusal to run again set the standard. Both Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant thought about it but demurred.
In recent times, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson could have served what amounted to a third term, having stepped into the job upon the death of their predecessor. Neither wanted to although LBJ might have run again in 1968 had Vietnam not eroded his popularity so thoroughly. Bill Clinton's rapport with the electorate despite his tawdry affair with an intern might have taken a shot at a third term if not precluded. Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower both had health and age issues that probably would have prevented their running for another term if not limited.
Thus, the overreaction to Roosevelt has become a good example of fixing something that wasn't broken. The voters should be the ultimate determiner of third term viability. The probability is low that many incumbents would accept, even the most charismatic.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dan Thomasson is a longtime Washington journalist and former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.