When a European head of government has too many enemies/doubts about their history, then he or she is usually deposed by the parliament and a new head of government is elected (either by the parliament or through a new general election).

However, in the United States, the only way for Congress to remove the president from office is an impeachment based around "illegal" or "medical" grounds. And such an impeachment does not lead to the election of a new president but only to the replacement of the president by the vice-president.

What are the reasons why the Constitution of the United States does not have a process to replace the president with a newly elected president before their term is over? Are there any contemporary sources which indicate why the founding fathers made the decision to not have such a process?

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    @paul23 I rewrote your question to make it neutral. It doesn't mention Trump at all now, because the rules which apply to Trump apply to any other president. I hope that I still caught the essence of what your question is actually asking.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 13:25
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    @user4012 I was taught in my secondary school history classes that the president is both head of government and head of state. paul23: What the founding fathers thought is relevant because they wrote the constitution, and your question is partly "why did they write it as they did?" The other part is "why hasn't it been changed in the meanwhile?" That is perhaps easier to answer: there is a high bar to passing amendments, and there is not much interest in changing it: Americans think the system works well. Are you asking why they think that?
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 15:53
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    @paul23 as to "hundreds of years ago," the parliamentary system with early elections predates the fixed-term system in the US constitution by, literally, hundreds of years. As to "what the founding fathers wanted," that includes wanting the constitution to change as needed, but only if a substantial supermajority supports the change.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 16:20
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    This isnt really an answer to the question, but I think its worth pointing out that Impeachment is a "trial by congress" rather than by the judicial system. In that sense, an impeachable offense could be literally anything that a majority of congress decides it is, and does not actually have to be a literal crime. In regards to vice presidential succession, I would point out that the 12th amendment changed the way in which the vice president was selected. With the original system, the succession would have made more sense, now it merely puts one of impeached president's toadies in charge.
    – Tal
    Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 17:27
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    @JedSchaaf Its that "other high crimes and misdemeanors" part where they get you. Moreover, I'd emphasize again that it is a trial by congress. If a majority of the house accuses the president murdering everyone named Bob, and a 2/3 majority of the senate convicts him of it, then he's impeached. It is already settled precedent that the judiciary cannot overturn an impeachment trial in the senate. Impeachment is a purely political matter and does not itself actually result in any criminal penalties beyond removal from office.
    – Tal
    Commented Jul 18, 2018 at 0:46

9 Answers 9

  1. One of the main reasons was that the President - even now, never mind in Founding Fathers' time - is not the "head of government", the way Prime Ministers are in Parliamentary systems.

    The President is the head of Executive Branch of government, and in Founders' time that branch had fairly little power, therefore there was far less possible impact and importance to having a re-election.

    200+ years ago, most of the domestic power was in the hands of legislative branch (Congress). There's too many references to pick just one, just go with whichever level of scholarniness you prefer out of a Google search for "us growth of presidential power".

  2. Also important is the fact that - again, as of Founder's time, the removal process outcome would NOT be the same as today.

    Today, the Vice President is a member of President's party (after 12th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified), so removing him without a subsequent election would (theoretically) have relatively little effect in terms of politics/policy.

    Back then, the Vice President would be the second placed person in Presidential election, and the Founders very strongly frowned on the whole idea of "factions" (as they called what we know as parties).

    As such, removing a President - via impeachment, or health reasons - would likely result in the same net effect as a re-election, as last election's runner-up would probably win, and that person is ALREADY a Vice President who would succeed the president.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 10:38

@User4012 makes some good arguments, I'll add a few.

The Founders greatly underestimated the relative power of the Congress and the President and expected that the Congress would turn out to be the dominant branch, making removal of the President less important. There is a reason that Article I (Congress) comes before Article II (the Executive Branch) and is much more detailed. They thought the action would be in Congress not the executive branch.

Also, the Founders had a paradigm of George Washington, the revered leader of the Republic since 1775 (14 years before he took office under the current constitution) as their almost certain first President, and didn't have very long time horizons. No modern Republic on the scale of the U.S. had lasted very long and the Founders would have been proud but shocked that their 1789 constitution was still being used with only minor modifications in 2018.

Thirdly, the early federal government was relatively unimportant (probably less so than the modern EU is in Europe today) at the time.

Fourth, politics moved a lot slower when horses and sailing ships were the fastest means of transportation and telecommunications had not yet been invented. A lot less happened in four year then than does now.

So, the need to focus on a means to remove President's midterm did not seem so urgent at the time.

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    @paul23 Because Constitutional Amendments require approval of 75% of the states and must be proposed by two-thirds majorities, and there is not overwhelming, bipartisan support for moving from a familiar Presidential system to a quasi-parliamentary one which sounds like an academic issue and usually favors one party or the other at any given time. The U.S. can't even get support for electing the President by popular vote or giving women equal rights. I live a blue state (CO) and even with bipartisan support an amendment to ban slavery in the state constitution was defeated in a popular vote.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 23:28
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    Yeah, it's sort of hard to overstate how weak the early US government was. The number of soldiers the US had under the articles of confederation was once as low as 80 individuals. The big reason the 2nd amendment got included in the bill of rights was because the "militia" it mentioned was supposed to form the bulk of the military arm of the US.
    – Teleka
    Commented Jul 18, 2018 at 2:50
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    @ohwilleke My guess would be that the reason such an amendment was defeated was probably because it was a meaningless, purely political stunt. Slavery has been banned in the entire U.S. (in the Constitution) since before Colorado was a state. As far as popular vote, that's by design. The U.S. President was never intended to be elected by popular vote. If it were, a handful of population centers would decide the whole election and the people who populate roughly 99% of the U.S. land area would have little say in the matter. The U.S. Constitution was intentionally designed to avoid this.
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 18, 2018 at 9:47
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    @jamesqf-It isn't a matter of that it works or not. It is simply a matter that nobody has a credible alternative that the overwhelming majority of people believe is obviously a better approach. There's no point in making a change that may be better, but could also be worse. If a change occurs, it should be because 'the change' is obviously an improvement and not just because it promotes someone's personal political agenda that just happens to be 'popular' at the moment.
    – Dunk
    Commented Jul 18, 2018 at 19:06
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    @KevinWells In that case, that's different from what ohwileke described and it's misleading at best to just call that "an amendment to ban slavery." That's certainly not what most people think of (especially in the context of the U.S.) with the word 'slavery.' And, yes, you're right that forced labor as punishment upon conviction of a crime is explicitly allowed by the U.S. Constitution. That's the only case in which it is allowed (though the draft continues to somehow exist anyway.)
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 14:42

A relevant quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin:

Dr. Franklin was for retaining the clause [on impeachment], as favorable to the executive. History furnishes one example only of a first magistrate being formally brought to public justice. Every body cried out against this as unconstitutional. What was the practice before this, in cases where the chief magistrate rendered himself obnoxious? Why, recourse was had to assassination, in which he was not only deprived of his life, but of the opportunity of vindicating his character. It would be the best way, therefore, to provide in the Constitution for the regular punishment of the executive, where his misconduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal, where he should be unjustly accused.

Benjamin Franklin, debates in the Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (July 20, 1787); reported in James Madison, Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, ed. Jonathan Elliot (1845), vol. 5, p. 340–41.

So the choice they considered was not whether to hold a new election, but whether to provide a way other than assassination to remove a sitting President.

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    This seems to be the primary source; perhaps link it? avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_720.asp Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 23:42
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    I guess the sole example that he had in mind was 1649. Commented Jul 18, 2018 at 0:34
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    Oh. And there I was thinking of Julius Caesar.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Jul 18, 2018 at 6:44
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    Fascinating idea - seeing impeachment as "favorable to the executive", because obviously the alternative is just killing them. Times do have changed...
    – sleske
    Commented Jul 18, 2018 at 8:19
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    @sleske Maybe not as much as one would like to think. The most recent attempt to assassinate a U.S. President was 5 years ago. Also, Reagan was successfully shot, but not killed and Osama bin Laden came within minutes of killing President Clinton.
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 18, 2018 at 10:01

It is true that an impeachment does not result in a reelection, however you appear to assume that the requirements for impeaching a president are stricter than they actually are. Although the constitution does specifically list a few crimes that are considered sufficient (treason and bribery), it also mentions "high crimes and misdemeanors", which are not defined anywhere.

The exact meaning of the phrase is left open to the interpretation of those applying it. Gerald Ford, then a member of the House of Representatives, claimed that:

The only honest answer is that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history; conviction results from whatever offense or offenses two-thirds of the other body considers to be sufficiently serious to require removal of the accused from office.

And surprisingly enough, he may not have been far off from the actual intent of the founders. During the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin argued that the impeachment clause should be included specifically because if it wasn't, then the only recourse for dealing with an "obnoxious" leader would be assassination.

Docr. FRANKLIN was for retaining the clause as favorable to the Executive. History furnishes one example only of a first Magistrate being formally brought to public Justice. Every body cried out agst. this as unconstitutional. What was the practice before this in cases where the chief Magistrate rendered himself obnoxious? Why recourse was had to assassination in wch. he was not only deprived of his life but of the opportunity of vindicating his character. It wd.. be the best way therefore to provide in the Constitution for the regular punishment of the Executive where his misconduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal [when] he should be unjustly accused.

So it would appear that the conditions necessary for impeachment are deliberately open-ended, so as to allow Congress to remove a president if the large majority of them agree that he is entirely unacceptable (and have some specific reason for it). As for why a reelection isn't called for...user4012's idea that the vice president would be a suitable replacement, having been previously received the second-most votes, is plausible, and following the line of succession is a slightly more stable approach than calling for a reelection in the middle of a term. I couldn't find any sources to confirm or deny either idea, though.

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    Organizing, managing, and tallying a scheduled national election is no simple matter. Throwing one ad-hoc following an impeachment or resignation is almost logistically unimaginable; probably literally impossible to do today (and would have been even more so in horse-and-buggy days). It would necessarily leave a lengthy gap between presidents, something that our system of government really doesn't allow for.
    – BradC
    Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 18:40

The answer is simply, "this is how it was designed over 200 years ago, and it's (deliberately) very hard to change it":

  1. The US Constitution describes (in a fair amount of detail) the process by which the President is elected, and does provide a method for removal: Impeachment.
  2. Because presidential election and removal is detailed in the US Constitution, Congress can't simply pass laws to change how it works, we would have to change the constitution itself. This is a (deliberately) difficult process requiring super-majority approval of both Congress and US state legislatures: Procedures for Amending the US Constitution.
  3. Since then, only one proposed amendment dealing with presidential succession has garnered enough support to pass: the 25th Amendment, which was passed in 1967 in the wake of JFK's assassination. This amendment deals mainly with what happens when the president is incapacitated.

As other answers have noted, "high crimes and misdemeanors" as a reason for impeachment is a phrase with broader meaning than just literal crimes:

The convention adopted “high crimes and misdemeanors” with little discussion. Most of the framers knew the phrase well. Since 1386, the English parliament had used “high crimes and misdemeanors” as one of the grounds to impeach officials of the crown. Officials accused of “high crimes and misdemeanors” were accused of offenses as varied as misappropriating government funds, appointing unfit subordinates, not prosecuting cases, not spending money allocated by Parliament, promoting themselves ahead of more deserving candidates, threatening a grand jury, disobeying an order from Parliament, arresting a man to keep him from running for Parliament, losing a ship by neglecting to moor it, helping “suppress petitions to the King to call a Parliament,” granting warrants without cause, and bribery. Some of these charges were crimes. Others were not. The one common denominator in all these accusations was that the official had somehow abused the power of his office and was unfit to serve.

In my opinion, this means that the current Congress, if it so desired, has the full ability to remove a sitting president under the current rules. Why they have not done so yet is political speculation outside the bounds of your original question.

Other follow-up questions come to mind, as well, some of which are dealt with in other answers. (Questions like "why did the founders choose impeachment vs other methods?" or "how difficult would it be to hold a national presidential election in an off year?") In my opinion, the founders thought it was more important for the office of the president to be filled immediately upon vacancy than to wait for a new election.

It is possible that at some time in the future, as we look back upon the legacy of Trump's election and presidency, that there will be sufficient support to propose and pass other Amendments regarding presidential elections or removal or succession. But right now, especially in the midst of this chaos, it is impossible to speculate what those might be.

  • This well-written response doesn't really answer the OP's question: Why isn't impeachment followed by a re-election? Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 23:16
  • @ShawnV.Wilson With regard to that aspect, I think the working of the US government simply couldn't tolerate an extended presidential vacancy - it's just too important a position to stay open while a (long, difficult, expensive) national election is organized and executed. How long would it even take? 3 months? 6 months? A year?
    – BradC
    Commented Jul 21, 2018 at 1:54
  • @ShawnV.Wilson The initial configuration was thought in a slightly different way as it works now. There would be no political parties but public personalities, the VP was the runner-up of the electoral delegate votation (so Hillary Clinton would have been Donald Trump's VP), which would mean no strong ties between POTUS and VPOTUS and so it would be unlikely that they were impeached together, and the VPOTUS would be the "second best" option. Add to that lack of previous examples to learn from these and a general optimism (Enlightment, Age of Reason).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jul 21, 2018 at 21:32
  • @BradC timing would not be much of an issue, since A) the powers of the executive were relatively few and B) there was no need of a votation by the public, each state's congress could decide on its own who the electors of the state would vote for.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jul 21, 2018 at 21:33

One reason is that the Parliamentary system (which the Founders were familiar with) doesn't always produce a strong leader, because you're voting for MPs (and by proxy their party), and any Prime Minister is subject to recall and new elections at any time, simply by the whims of the parties in power (i.e. you don't always have an outright majority of the PM's party).

Calling for repeated elections can also fatigue the populace. In the United Kingdom, some Prime Ministers have served for less than a year. While this system can produce stability in the long run, it's not hard to see why the US opted for a chain of designated successors instead. If something happens, you move on to the next person in line and they serve the remainder of the term.

A great example (and an awful one) would be the various assassinations of US Presidents. The chain of successors prevents any kind of panic in the government to function.

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    Note that when the Constitution was being written, Parliamentary terms in the U.K. were a maximum of seven years. However the King could dismiss Parliament at any time, calling new elections, and the Founding Fathers we knew that many regarded this usage as an abuse of power. It's not listed in the DoI as a tyranny of King George because the colonists were unable to vote for representation in Parliament regardless. Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 21:22

What are the reasons why the Constitution of the United States does not have a process to replace the president with a newly elected president before their term is over?

  1. We have enough checks and balances that a given president, although unpopular, can be essentially marginalized by Congress. For instance, if a president is pushing an unpopular use of military force, Congress can shut off funding for it through the budget process, and in extreme cases invoke the War Powers Act. The easy presidential route to action, Executive Orders, can be overruled by Congress (although it's been a while since Congress was strongly-enough polarized against a president to do that.)

  2. We don't require that a president be effectively powerful in the short term. Enough federal government functions run more-or-less autonomously (again, in the short term) that the country is perfectly willing to let things bumble along until the next election. Having a powerful president is necessary when Something Must Be Done. In the current political climate, for instance, Trump can be seen as a reaction to the (apparently inexorable) slide towards greater power on the part of the federal government.

  3. We've seen the other extreme. Americans are (more or less, on the whole, of course) satisfied with how the government works and the prospects of improving it. Most folk understand that government will never be perfect. The idea of constantly electing a new government is distasteful, and there's always another election coming up to make a change.

  4. America (like many democracies) walks a balancing act between wanting a popular (in the sense of responding to the people) government and the psychological security of having a king, a single individual who embodies the spirit of the country. In times of external threat especially, the tendency to close ranks behind the leader is strong, and since 9/11 (for better or worse) Americans have felt to some degree threatened. A marker of this sense of threat is popular perception of the military. Contrasting public treatment of soldiers with the conditions of, for instance, post-Vietnam is instructive. I would argue that the polarization around Trump suggests that we are recovering from the trauma of 9/11, and internal issues are becoming more important than dealing with external threats.


The other answers answer your question directly and provide historical reasons for why the US constitution is as it is today.

Your question indirectly provokes a different thought, which can't be definitely answered:

Whether it is good to not be able to remove the president with a simple vote. Or, more generally: Whether the US constitution is good the way it is.

The Economist answers that thought as follows:

There is a reason why, when choosing their own constitutions, no other country has for long survived with a replica of the American model—and why when guiding the design of constitutions for others, as they did in post-war Germany and Japan, Americans have always suggested solutions quite unlike the one under which they live.

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    Got any links that aren't locked behind a paywall/registration wall? Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 22:49
  • @MasonWheeler I think you can open it in an incognito tab. NVM, it only shows the first part of the article and the quote in this answer is a bit of a cliff-hanger..
    – JJJ
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 13:38

There is an impeachment process for Congress to remove a president if they find him guilty of a crime. It's not supposed to be a political weapon, but it has been used that way.

We also have a vice-president who will run the government if a president dies or is removed. And there is an order of succession after the VP as well so there is no reason to hold elections out of cycle.

  • but what if a new situation makes the world think completelly different? Or the sitting president turns out to be "not what people expected"? Those things would invalidate a previous vote due to new information, and thus the democratic solution is to ask for another opinion (vote) from the population.
    – paul23
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 16:56
  • Clinton changed his views on policy and he was even more popular after he moved to the right. There is a good reason for a high standard or criminal conduct to remove a president and not just because people don’t like him.
    – Alen
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 17:06
  • Which is? I see people repeat this, however I do not see any arguments other than "this is bad, we don't want this". - Yet I know for certain that the fact that governments are constantly under "fear" of being voted for non confidence (a try for such a vote happens nearly yearly) in the Netherlands has made politics much more on their toes and following much better what people actually want. Not perfect but better.
    – paul23
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 18:01
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    One of the foundations of the us constitution and American government is not to be beholden to public opinion because it can be manipulated
    – Alen
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 18:10

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