28 July 2015

Obama on term limits and time limits

The President boasted to his African hosts today that he could win a third term if he wanted and was allowed to run, but his real point was to tell African leaders that it's a good thing that he can't run again, while it would be a better thing for Africa if its leaders were likewise term-limited. Obama admitted that there are things he'll regret leaving undone, but he doesn't see himself, as he suspects many an African leaders sees himself, as an indispensable man. "If a leader thinks they're the only person who can hold their nation together," he said, "then that leader has failed to truly build their country." It's a noble sentiment that will probably go unappreciated in the U.S., but is it more idealistic than realistic? Let me play devil's advocate for a moment. It's well and good for Obama to praise term limits -- I don't like the idea of indispensable men, either -- but let's note that his office wasn't term-limited until approximately fifty years ago, nearly two hundred years after the Declaration of Independence. Until then, a two-term limit for presidents was merely customary, the example set by George Washington holding until Franklin Roosevelt smashed it. Washington and others most likely could have won three terms or more had they wanted to. But was Washington's retirement an act of principle or simply an understandable act for one who, in his mid-sixties, was an old man by the standards of his time? At the other end of the timeline, was the constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two terms an act of principle or an act of fear? Obama implies that the only alternative to term limits is rule for life, but that doesn't follow. Nor does his assertion quoted above stand scrutiny. It reflects the luxury of his own position as the President of a country with a long-established rule of law, an entrenched civil society, and only the mild form of tribalism we call partisanship. The circumstances of a revolutionary regime, or a nation newly liberated from foreign rule, are necessarily different. Let Obama pick a number of years. Would that amount of time be enough, in his judgment, for any leader in any nation to "truly build" his country? Time is one thing, of course, and personnel another. Ideally neither a revolution nor a government should be made by one man. A movement for governing a new country or new regime should itself be governed by a principle of peaceful rotation of office, but presuming an imbalance of talents must a movement surrender an advantage of leadership for the sake of an abstract principle. Obama would seem to say yes and take doing so as proof unto itself that a leader has truly built his country. Then again, he thinks himself a good president who would be re-elected if he had a chance. There may be a certain principled naivete to his perceptions that people committed to real radical change can't afford to share. They have their own naivetes to deal with, which only goes to show that there are no easy answers, no matter how much liberals like Obama wish for them.

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