The twenty-second amendment ensures that American presidents can get at most two terms.
What is the point of this rule? Was there ever a documented reason at the time it was put in place?
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Although the Twenty-second Amendment was clearly a reaction to Franklin D. Roosevelt's service as President for an unprecedented four terms, the notion of presidential term limits has long-standing roots in American politics.
The 22nd amendment was passed when Harry Truman was president (March 21, 1947). That was shortly after the four term presidency of FDR. The 22nd amendment was intended to prevent another FDR. Republicans like Thomas Dewey said this explicitly (it was part of Dewey's 1944 campaign against FDR). Democrats were more circumspect but certainly realized the effect it would have had on FDR.
Four terms, or sixteen years, is the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed.
Shortly after I was elected, in Nineteen Hundred and Forty-eight, I made up my mind that I would not seek another term. I have seen a great many men in public life, and one of their besetting sins is to stay in office too long. Nowadays, in such organizations as the Army and the civil service and industry, there is compulsory retirement, but no such regulations prevail in politics. I decided that I would not be guilty of this common failing, and that I should make way for younger men
It's not evident that Truman supported the 22nd amendment (as president, his support was not needed). But this quote shows that Dewey's position was also known among Democrats, even if they didn't necessarily favor making it an amendment.
If the 22nd amendment had not existed, then Ronald Reagan might have been president in 1992. George H. W. Bush won in 1988 as a continuation of the Reagan administration. And lost in 1992 as some felt he was insufficiently Reaganesque. It's unclear if H. Ross Perot would have run against Reagan in 1992, and it's unknown if Bill Clinton would have been able to beat him. Reagan might have still been president in 1994 when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
Some have asked why I chose Reagan as an example. Let's go through the reasons:
Any one of those three reasons would justify choosing him as an example.
That Reagan was already suffering from Alzheimer's in 1988. That may have been true, but no one was saying so then. It wasn't until his diagnosis in 1994 that people started suggesting that.
Other two term presidents could also have won a third term. This is possible. Prior to the 22nd amendment, only convention was stopping them.
One person went so far as to say that any two term president could have been elected for a third term. This is provably untrue. Woodrow Wilson sought the presidency in 1920 and failed to win the nomination. Theodore Roosevelt would have been barred from reelection by the 22nd amendment and failed to win a third term in 1912. I'll leave off counter-examples like Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley as being rather trivial (they didn't run for third terms because they were dead).
There are also candidates who it seems unlikely would have won if they had run: George W. Bush; Richard Nixon (elected twice even if he didn't complete his second term); Lyndon B. Johnson (served in two terms although less than half the first); even Truman, as he barely won his second term. Other candidates might have won (even easily), but we'll never know: Barack Obama; Bill Clinton; Dwight Eisenhower.
Prior to the 22nd amendment, there were other two-term presidents followed by a successor from the same party, including: George Washington (John Adams); Thomas Jefferson (James Madison); James Madison (James Monroe); Andrew Jackson (Martin Van Buren); Ulysses S Grant (Rutherford B. Hayes); Teddy Roosevelt (William Howard Taft). We can guess that they would have won third terms as well. Washington would have died during his fourth term if had kept running and winning.
The point being that a president whose popularity led to his candidate winning would have a better chance than one whose candidate lost. Does that mean that no two-term president whose choice lost would have been able to win? No. Presumably they were better candidates. But they were less effective than those presidents who were able to get their desired successors elected.
Anyway, the point of mentioning Reagan is that some people will look at FDR and be glad that he won four terms. Many of those people look at Reagan and are glad that he didn't. It's unclear who would have been president if FDR had not run. It might have been his opponent. Or it might have been a different Democrat. It's easy to see what happened when Reagan didn't run.
This kind of thing is important because it is easy to view these things through a partisan lens. Reagan supporters were for third terms in 1988 while FDR supporters were for them in 1940. And their opponents were against them. What's harder is to be an FDR supporter in 1940 or a Reagan supporter in 1988 who says no to third terms then.
Although the US Constitution did not originally set term limits on the Presidency, this was a controversial point among its framers:
However, when the states ratified the Constitution (1787–88), several leading statesmen regarded the lack of mandatory limits to tenure as a dangerous defect, especially, they thought, as regards the presidency and the Senate. Richard Henry Lee viewed the absence of legal limits to tenure, together with certain other features of the Constitution, as "most highly and dangerously oligarchic". Both Jefferson and George Mason advised limits on reelection to the Senate and to the Presidency, because said Mason, "nothing is so essential to the preservation of a Republican government as a periodic rotation".
In practice, there was a strong unwritten convention that Presidents would seek only two terms. This began with George Washington, who noted in his farewell address that he was declining to run for a third term.
The framers of the US Constitution were strongly opposed to monarchy, in which a single individual embodies the authority of the government and may remain on the throne for decades. It was felt that if a President served for too long, it would blur the distinction between a monarch and the chief executive of a republic. They desired for civic loyalty to be to the Constitution and laws, not to any one person.
The convention was disregarded by Franklin D Roosevelt, albeit under the exceptional circumstances of the Great Depression and Second World War. After Roosevelt's death, it was decided to amend the Constitution to formally prevent any future President from serving more than two terms.
On a more practical level, there are other advantages to a term limit for the President:
The physical and psychological stress of the office is likely to cause a decline in effectiveness as time goes on;
Ambitious members of the governing party will want the opportunity to run for President themselves;
It is unusual for incumbent Presidents to lose re-election. (Since 1945, 8 incumbents have won and 3 have lost.) All else being equal, the opposition party has a better chance against a new candidate than an incumbent President. Obviously this works to the advantage of the opposition party, but a long period of single-party rule may be regarded as bad for the country as a whole.
The American system was designed to have checks and balances so that none of the three branches could become too powerful. However a long-serving president can upset that balance.
The president nominates Supreme Court justices. We saw with FDR how he initially proposed a court-packing plan to get his policies past a Supreme Court that found his policies unconsitutional. His own party objected and he abandoned his plan. However he eventually was able to appoint his own justices who approved his plans. A long-serving president could eventually have a majority of his appointees on the Supreme Court.
The president's power includes having the bully pulpit (lots of press attention). A long-serving president has his views dominate for long periods of time without a disagreeing voice of similar notability.
For a congressman, opposing such a long-serving president presents risks. The president might use the bully-pulpit against the congressman.
The president has the power of patronage - appointing or replacing judges, ambassadors, cabinet members, deputy cabinet members, etc. A president can use this power reward friends and friends of friends. If the president is going to be around a long time then as a congressman you know that you need to be on his good side if your friends (donors) are ever going to be appointed to anything.
The president, by replacing executive branch and judicial branch members as they retire or quit, can create branches of government that are extremely loyal to him if he stays in office for a long time.
Finally, the 22nd amendment limits the alienation of large groups of voters. Consider a divisive president like Obama who regularly ridiculed his opponents - even making fun of an audience member in a particularly cruel way at the Washington Correspondents Dinner - or the equally divisive president Trump. If either of them were to stay in power for 16 or 20 years (and Obama was popular enough that he might have done so) large numbers of the opposition would find themselves shut out from power and subject to punitive laws and regulations (consider the IRS targeting of conservative groups under Obama or recent Trump's voter fraud investigations of states that opposed him). With term-limits one side doesn't end up dominating for decades simply because they have a charismatic leader.