The U.S. holds national elections every 2 years, but Presidents are only up for election every 4 years. The result is that sometimes, a president has 2 years where congress can oppose them and sometimes even shut the government down.

Is there a reason (preferably legal or ideological) why these elections must be timed in this way, and not all in the same year so the government stands more chance of being united?

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    Leaving aside everything else, your "where the senate can oppose them" is a reference to 2 main political parties in modern system; whereas the Founding Fathers explicitly aimed to avoid what they called "factions". – user4012 May 18 '16 at 15:37
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    Why? Because that constitution is very old and full of idiosyncratic half-baked ideas. But that's an issue in most presidential systems and one reason why there aren't many of them: If you elect the (head of) government separately from the parliament, there is always the possibility that they won't always be in sync. The 6-year senate terms and the 2-year terms to the house of representative are just one way this shows. – Relaxed May 18 '16 at 16:47
  • Incidentally, it's a bit odd to single out the US Senate, which has longer terms than the House of Representative. At the moment, elections to the latter are so lopsided that it is very difficult for Democrats to gain a majority but in principle it is more likely to change sides quickly. With the Senate on the other hand, it's perfectly possible for a party to win the presidential election by a landslide and yet fail to win a majority, simply because 2/3rd of the seat are not up for reelection. – Relaxed May 18 '16 at 16:52
  • Because of these two facts (the Republicans' stranglehold on the House of Representatives and the Senates staggered terms), it's perfectly conceivable that a president would face a divided government for the full 4 years of his or her term. – Relaxed May 18 '16 at 16:53
  • Damn. Can you imagine having to go through our presidential elections every two years? Holy crap. – PoloHoleSet Aug 14 '17 at 14:21

The electoral pattern was set in the U.S. Constitution with the objective of creating a representative but not necessarily united government. The principles of checks and balances were originally primarily confined to the legislature, as defined in Article I of the constitution, and the executive as defined in Article II. Unity of government was not something that the founders thought was a good thing, because it would allow one faction to dominate the country, and so the structure of the U.S. government was set up to make unity difficult, without massive popular support.

The legislature enacts laws, passes budgets and serves as the primary check on the executives power. The lower house, the House of Representatives, is intended to represent the "masses" and is elected every two years. The biennial elections force the House to be more responsive to the people. The upper house, the Senate, was originally elected by the state legislatures and was intended to represent the governments of states. With the passage of the 17th amendment the Senate became elected directly by the people, but each Senator serves a term of 6 years, and are elected in three roughly equal classes. The longer terms allow Senators to be be more "deliberative" and take a longer view of issues.

The President, as the executive, was the power that the Founding Fathers most feared, and was the power the legislative branch was intended to balance against. The president being elected every four years meant that he would be at a relative disadvantage to the Senate, in terms of strategic planning, and be constantly subject to change in the House because of people's dissatisfaction.

This system was set up to strike a balance between stability, which could lead to domination and tyranny, and chaos, which would leave the country ungovernable. While there was a chance that the government could be united with a single faction controlling the Senate, the House and the Presidency, that was not the objective. It was feared that unified government would lead to tyranny. Therefore the difficulty in creating a unified government is actually a feature and not a bug.

It stands in stark contrast with the parliamentary system, which always has a unified executive and legislature, because the executive is drawn from the legislature, in the form of the Prime Minister, which means that the party in power can always enact their policies more or less as intended. On the other hand, Parliamentary systems are reliant upon the ability to call frequent, short elections, in order to remain representative, and at times that has led to extended periods of instability, with frequent governmental collapse.

The contrast between the two can be illustrated with the metaphor of two ships of state. One, the presidential system, moves slowly and turns slowly, but is consequently fairly consistent in its movement. The other, the parliamentary system, can turn on a dime, but may dart back and forth and even completely reverse direction, sometimes abandoning its advances completely.

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  • I never looked at it like that. So basically, the Founding Fathers were so concerned about a dicator president (similar to the kings of Georgian England) that they sacrificed a certain amount of stability in return for a larger check on the president's power? I can definitely see why that is a fair deal. Here in Belgium, the system often leads to one government undoing part of what the previous government did, or worse, having to clean up a mess left by that government. – Nzall May 18 '16 at 20:13
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    I don't think "sacrificed a certain amount of stability" is quite right. What the divided government does is force factions to compromise to get anything done. This makes it harder for drastic actions to be taken when a new party takes over, which makes for more stable governing. – Gort the Robot May 18 '16 at 20:20
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    @NateKerkhofs - I'd say they "sacrificed a certain amount of efficiency". The US government wastes a lot of time in internal debate (passing bills that die in the other chamber, fillibusters, vetos and overriding them, etc), but in general, none of that trickles down to change how the rest of the government and/or the people do things. It may mean that nothing changes (even when it needs to), but it also prevents exactly the issue you say Belgium has. – Bobson May 19 '16 at 3:11
  • I'm not sure you can actually say this in general about parliamentary vs. presidential systems. Here in Switzerland, the heads of the executive are elected by parliament. But no single party or faction can take power of the executive, simply because that's not how Swiss culture works (it's purely in our heads), there would be a huge public backlash no party can afford, so they compromise and form a roughly proportional government. While our system of shared power in the executive makes this easier, I don't think it would be impossible at all do to in, say, Germany, if the parties needed to. – Nobody Jul 30 '17 at 11:03
  • Also, by only ever having a portion of the government up for reelection at any one time, they guaranteed that there would always be a majority of people with several years' experience at the mechanics of governing, which means continuance and minimizes the loss of institutional knowledge you might otherwise get when an entire team is replaced at once and none of the new members knows what's currently going on... – Shadur Aug 2 at 20:08

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