How Clinton and Obama could run together and take turns being president.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
March 21 2008 6:45 PM

Clinton-Obama, Obama-Clinton

How they could run together and take turns being president.

Wax figurines of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Wax figurines of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

When Hillary Clinton recently floated the idea of choosing Barack Obama as her running mate, she won political points without being taken seriously (especially by Obama). The primary season has turned into the kind of slog and slugfest that makes opponents more opposed to each other, not less. But humor me, for a moment, and imagine that the kind of reconciliation that would allow them to be running mates is possible. Not to mention the best outcome for the party.

But which should it be: Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton? In fact, voters in November could actually endorse both versions of the ticket—truly, two presidents for the price of one. How? The Constitution's 25th Amendment allows for a new paradigm of political teamwork: The two Democratic candidates could publicly agree to take turns in the top slot.

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Adopted in 1967 in the shadow of John F. Kennedy's assassination, the 25th Amendment allows presidents unilaterally to transfer presidential power to their vice presidents and enables presidents, with congressional consent, to fill a vacancy in the vice presidency should one arise. By creatively using the constitutional rules created by this amendment, the Democrats can, if they are so inclined, present the voters in November with a new kind of balanced ticket.

Here's how it would work: In August at the Democratic National Convention, the party would nominate one candidate for president and the other for vice president in the time-honored way. In their acceptance speeches, the nominees would announce that they intend to alternate. For example, they could tell the voters that the person heading the Democratic ticket would, if elected, take office in January 2009 but would serve as president for only the first three years of the four-year term. In January 2012, the teammates would use the 25th Amendment to switch places, and the person elected vice president would assume the presidency for the final year of the term. There is nothing magical about these dates. Almost any date would do. For maximal democratic legitimacy, however, the candidates should inform the voters before the election of the specific date when their planned shift of power will occur.

Of course, if this dream team proved popular in office, the teammates could run for re-election in 2012. This time, it might make the most sense for the ticket to be the inverse of 2008. Thus, the person at the bottom of the 2008 ticket could top the 2012 ticket. If re-elected, our initial-VP-turned-president might then serve until, say, January 2016—four consecutive years in all—and then our initial-president-turned-VP would resume the top spot for the final year of the second term. (Thus, this person, too, would end up serving four years, albeit not consecutively.)

And here's the icing on the constitutional cake: Nothing in the 25th Amendment or elsewhere in the founding document would prevent this team from presenting themselves to the electorate in similar fashion in 2016. If the voters were to endorse the pair yet again, then at this point one of the teammates would have been elected twice as president and would become ineligible in any future presidential race; but the other teammate would in fact remain fully eligible to run in 2020. With the result that, if voters so chose, the teammates could, between themselves, share power for a total of four full terms. (Under the 22nd Amendment, no person can be elected to the presidency more than twice; and under the 12th Amendment, vice presidents must meet the same eligibility and electability rules as presidents.)