U.S. election 2020: how long is the presidential term?

The United States is the country of the permanent campaign – or almost. The presidential term lasts only four years. In addition, soon after his inauguration, the head of state must already think about the midterm elections which, two later, may limit his room for maneuver in Congress.

► A short term wanted by the Founding Fathers

When the delegates of the 13 former English colonies met in Philadelphia in 1787 in Convention to invent a country, they invented a new function: the presidency, “The most original but also the most daring creation of the entire institutional system” (1). At the end of the 18th century, legislative assemblies like Congress were nothing new – the President of a Republic was.

REPORTAGE. 18 months before the presidential election, the United States is already on the campaign trail

Always anxious to fight against tyranny, from which they had just freed themselves, the Founding Fathers provided for a short term of four years. That is two years less than the Senators, representatives of the legitimacy of States in Congress. A sign of the preponderance of Congress in the spirit of the Philadelphia Convention, as the representation of the people and of the States, the first article of the Constitution is devoted to it, before the president (article II).

► A decisive deadline: the midterm elections

Four years to take the measure of a country as large as the United States is a short time. Especially since the electoral campaigns today are long: the last year of the presidential mandate, which opens with the start of the primaries, is swallowed up by the upcoming election.

→ MID-MANDATE. Two years after Donald Trump’s victory, Democrats are raising their heads

But that’s not all. Because shortly after being sworn in on January 20 in Washington, a first electoral deadline is already on the horizon: the mid-term elections, which are held in November the year following his inauguration.

In the United States, Congress is re-elected every two years – the House of Representatives (our deputies’ equivalents) is renewed entirely (the term of representatives is two years), the Senate by thirds. These two bodies play a key role in the United States, where the balance provided for by the Constitution between the executive, legislative and judicial powers is very subtle. Elected officials can even overthrow the president.

► Two terms maximum

Typically, a president actually spends eight years in the White House. This was, for example, the case of the last three heads of state – Barack Obama (2009-2017), George W. Bush (2001-2009), Bill Clinton (1993-2001). Few of the incumbents fail to win a second term – George Bush Sr (defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992) or Jimmy Carter (defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980). A club that Donald Trump would not like to join.

→ EXPLANATION. Donald Trump launches campaign for re-election

Originally, the Constitution did not impose any limit on the number of terms. It was only after the war, after Franklin Roosevelt’s four successive victories, that Congress passed an amendment prohibiting a third candidacy. Voted in 1947 at the initiative of the Republican Party, which had campaigned against “FDR” for nearly fifteen years, the 22nd Amendment entered into force in 1951, after having been ratified by a sufficient number of states.


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