The presidency is arguably the most prominent and powerful role in American politics. But while the U.S. president wields significant authority and influence, the duration of their tenure is not unlimited. So, how long can a president serve? The short answer, based on the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, is that a president can serve a maximum of two terms, each term being four years, for a total of eight years. However, there are some caveats to this rule that can potentially extend this tenure slightly.
The 22nd Amendment
Before the enactment of the 22nd Amendment, there was no constitutional limit to the number of terms a U.S. president could serve. While most presidents followed George Washington’s example of serving only two terms, the tradition was broken by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected to the presidency four times, serving from 1933 until his death in 1945.
This precedent prompted the proposal and ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951, which explicitly limited a president to two elected terms. The amendment states: “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice.”
Exceptions to the Rule
There is, however, an exception to the two-term limit. If a person becomes president through the order of succession — that is, they were not elected to the role but stepped in from the vice presidency or another position due to the sitting president’s removal, death, resignation, or incapacitation — the rules are slightly different.
According to the 22nd Amendment, if a person serves as president for more than two years of a term to which someone else was elected, they can only be elected president once more. In contrast, if they serve two years or less of the other person’s term, they can be elected president twice.
This means that in theory, a president could serve for a maximum of ten years—up to two years completing a predecessor’s term, plus two full four-year terms of their own.
In summary, a U.S. president, under the conditions set by the 22nd Amendment, can serve for a maximum of two elected terms, totaling eight years. But due to the specifics of presidential succession, it is possible for a president to serve up to ten years under extraordinary circumstances. This rule ensures the rotation of individuals in the office of the presidency, providing for fresh perspectives and preventing the excessive consolidation of power in a single individual’s hands over an extended period.