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The Third Term Myth

President Obama was deep into a hefty policy speech to the 54 nations of the African Union about the future of the continent on Tuesday, winding up a resonant and historic trip to sub-Saharan Africa.

The topics he embraced ranged from economic development to food security to the evils of slavery and colonialism.  In Kenya, he scolded leaders on gay rights. In Ethiopia, he said the government should stop imprisoning journalists.

President Obama addresses the 54 nations of the African Union in Ethiopia. [Photo: White House]

But in his final speech, he talked about corruption on the continent. In a previous visit, he’s said Africa needs strong institutions, not strong men. But in nations like Burundi, whose president recently decided to change the rules so he could seek and gain a third term, that message has not taken hold.

"Nothing will unlock Africa’s economic potential more than ending the cancer of corruption," Obama said to the African Union audience. Singling out Burundi, he said democratic progress is at stake when leaders cling to power.

And then he mentioned, in what seemed an offhand fashion, the one thing that he had to know would rankle his critics back home.

"Now, let me be honest with you -- I do not understand this," he said, placing his hand on his chest. "I am in my second term.  It has been an extraordinary privilege for me to serve as President of the United States.  I cannot imagine a greater honor or a more interesting job.  I love my work.  But under our Constitution, I cannot run again.  I can't run again.  I actually think I'm a pretty good president -- I think if I ran I could win. But I can't."

He added: "So there’s a lot that I'd like to do to keep America moving, but the law is the law.  And no one person is above the law.  Not even the president."

It’s worth reading all he had to say in context, because the president was speaking about governance, and there was much laughter and applause as he spoke. But at home his comment was viewed purely through a political lens. Was he being overconfident? Sly? How dare a politician say he thinks he’s doing a good job? Was he plotting a Constitutional coup?

Much ink and television air time was spilled on this. The reality of the 22nd amendment, which limits the president to two, 4-year terms in office, was set aside in favor of speculation over what it might take for Mr. Obama to seize one more term.

This type of wishful -- or fretful -- thinking is not unique to this president. Bill Clinton has happily floated the idea that third terms should be allowed, as long as they are not served consecutively. "Oh, I probably would have run again," Mr. Clinton told Rolling Stone in 2000.

Democrats and Republicans introduced bills to abolish presidential term limits that would have favored Mr. Obama but also Ronald Reagan, back in 1986.

In a more esoteric fashion, some critics have accused Mr. Obama of effectively serving George W. Bush’s third term for him, by expanding government regulation, health care and his policies on the Middle East. These similarities probably have more to do with an executive’s love of executive prerogative than with shared policy objectives.

Still, much of the slight burst of hysteria that followed the president’s third term musings ignored the rest of what the President had to say in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

"The point is, I don't understand why people want to stay so long," he added, circling back to the topic of corruption. "Especially when they’ve got a lot of money."

He added that changing the rules to stay in office is the "first step down a perilous path."

"Sometimes you’ll hear leaders say, well, I'm the only person who can hold this nation together," he said, as his audience laughed again. "If that's true, then that leader has failed to truly build their nation."

Plus, the president said, he looks forward to being able to take an unescorted walk again.