Lame Duck Politicians

Why Being a Lame Duck in Politics Isn't Such a Bad Thing

Obama inauguration
Barack Obama was the subject of rumors that he would run for a third term despite a constitutional limit on the number of presidential terms to two. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News

A lame duck politician is an elected official who is not seeking re-election. The term is often used to describe U.S. presidents in their second and final terms in the White House. The use of "lame duck" is often considered derogatory because it refers to an elected official's loss of power and inability to effect change.

U.S. presidents are bound by the Constitution to two terms in the White House under the 22nd Amendment. So they automatically become lame ducks the minute their take their oaths of office for the second time. Most of the time lame duck presidents become mired in cursed second terms. Few have notched successes as lame ducks.

Members are Congress are not bound by statutory term limits, but the minute they announce their intention to retire they, too, earn lame duck status. And while there are obvious downsides to being a lame duck, there are also some positive aspects to not being bound to the often-fickle whims of the electorate.

Origins of the Phrase Lame Duck

The phrase lame duck was originally used to describe bankrupt businessmen. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer's "A Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" described a lame duck as “a stock-jobber or dealer who will not, or cannot, pay his losses and has to 'waddle out of the alley like a lame duck.'"

By the 1800s the phrase connoted politically bankrupt or "broken down" elected officials. Calvin Coolidge is said to be the first American president to be called a lame duck, during his second term. The term is also used to described political patronage, as in "lame duck appointments," or those made by an outgoing politician in his final days in office to reward friends and supporters.

The term was also popularized during the debate over when the president was to be sworn into office. The 20th Amendment, which stipulates that the incoming president and vice president take their oaths of office on Jan. 20 after the election instead of waiting until March as they previously did, was called the "lame duck amendment" because it prevented the still-in-session Congress from acting behind the back of the incoming commander-in-chief.

Lame Ducks Are Ineffective and Mischievous

One common rap against elected officials who are on their way out of office is that no one takes them seriously. It's true that lame ducks see the power they once enjoyed in office great diminished whether it's by an election loss, the approach of a term limit or the decision to retire.

Wrote Michael J. Korzi in Presidential Term Limits in American History: Power, Principles, and Politics:

"The lame duck theory suggests that the closer a president comes to the end of a second term - if he or she is barred from seeking re-election - the less relevant the president is to the Washington scene and especially the congressional players who are critical to the passage of many presidential priorities."

The lame-duck effect on the presidency is different than the lame-duck sessions of Congress, which occur in even numbered years when the House and Senate reconvene after the elections - even those lawmakers who lost their bids for another term. 

It is true that lame ducks and lame-duck sessions held under the cover of night and without public scrutiny have resulted in some rather undesirable consequences: pay raises, enhanced perks and more lavish benefits for members of Congress, for example.

"They also have provided an opportunity to pass unpopular legislation not mentioned during the campaign, since blame can then be passed on the non-returning members," wrote Robert E. Dewhirst and John David Rausch in the Encyclopedia of the United States Congress.

Lame Ducks Have Nothing to Lose 

Elected officials in their final terms in office have the luxury of being bold and being able to address serious issues by adopting often controversial policies. As Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder told The Post of Athens about lame-duckery:

“It’s kind of like having terminal cancer. If you know your time is up and you only have two months to live, maybe you’ll behave a little different in the last 90 days.”

Candidates who don't have to face the wrath of voters for unpopular decisions are often more willing to deal with important or controversial issues without fear of angering blocs of constituents. That means some lame duck politicians can be freer and more productive in their final days in office.

President Barack Obama, for example, surprised many political observers when he announced in December 2014 that the United States would work toward restoring diplomatic relations with the communist nation of Cuba.

At the beginning of his second term, Obama angered gun-rights advocates when he announced 23 executive actions designed to address gun violence in the United States after several mass shootings occurred during his first term. The most significant proposals called for universal background checks on anyone trying to buy a gun, restoring a ban on military-style assault weapons, and cracking down on straw purchases.

Though Obama was not successful in having these measures passed, his moves did spark a national dialogue on the issues.