How Lame Is a Lame-duck President?

Barack Obama sitting in chair
President Barack Obama attends talks with European leaders in Berlin in the final November of his presidency. Michael Ukas - Pool/Getty Images

Surely you've heard­ it before. If you've read any news chronicling an incumbent presid­ent who's reached the end of his term, you've come across the term "lame duck." Initially, it was used to describe investors who were unable to pay their debts. In the hands of Americans around 100 years later it was applied to "broken down politicians" [source: The Phrase Finder]. This version stuck.

Despite their timid-sounding moniker, lame-duck office holders aren't always as meek as little lambs. Since they may no longer feel beholden to voters, these officials may take advantage of their position against the wishes of their constituents. The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, known as the Lame Duck Amendment, was passed to reduce this risk, by shortening the terms of elected officials who are voted out of office.


The lame-duck phenomenon even has its own obscure holiday. February 6 of each year is "Lame Duck Day," a time to reflect upon the service provided by a public servant after his or her tenure has been completed [source: Holiday Insight]. It's held on February 6 because it was on that day in 1933 that the 20th Amendment was adopted [source: FindLaw].

Lame duck politicians are serving out their final terms because they have lost a re-election or are no longer eligible to serve. The term is often used to describe sitting presidents who have served two terms, and have entered their last year. It's somewhat mean-spirited, looking toward the future while the incumbent remains in office -- for the time being.

But to saddle politicians with lame duck status simply because they have reached the end of their terms is like assuming an aged lion no longer has any teeth; they were once, after all, powerful. Besides, now freed from any obligation to court voters for another election, lame ducks have much more freedom to follow their own course.

Read about some of the hits (and misses) some lame duck presidents have made in the final days of their terms in this article. But first, read about the Lame Duck Amendment to the Constitution.


The Lame-duck Amendment

Bush's 2008 Address.
Lame duck president George W. Bush gives a wink during his last State of the Union Address in 2008.
Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Prior to the institution of the 20th Amendment in 1933, members of Congress sat for a full 13 months in office after losing an election. This was ample time for some to raid the office supply closet, as it were. "The old members, in lame duck sessions, often did things that the new members might not" is one way of putting it [source: The New York Times].

And, at times, there are so many new faces in Congress that the entire body is considered to be a lame duck. This is most often seen when a transfer of power from one political party to another occurs. During times when an idle Congress is seated, the bodies may be prone to a bit more mischief than usual. For example, they can impeach a president, as seen in 1998 just before Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives. The new House took over amid calls from their Republican predecessors to impeach Democratic president Bill Clinton.


A Congress that has been stripped of its leadership by the votes of the people is generally seen as less viable, so the notion of continuing impeachment proceedings by a lame duck body struck some in 1998 as unconstitutional. Since the impeachment proceedings could have made it through the House but not the Senate by the requisite deadline of January 3, whether or not the House-issued declaration to impeach Clinton was legal came into question. "A lame duck impeachment is entitled to even less respect than an ordinary bill passed by a lame-duck House," said Yale Law School professor Bruce Ackerman, who testified before a congressional committee on the matter [source: The New York Times].

The 20th Amendment was also designed, in part, to protect against a repeat of the 1876 election. Samuel J. Tilden took the popular vote that year, but neither he nor Rutherford B. Hayes had the majority of the votes of the Electoral College -- the body that actually elects the president in the United States. Both candidates claimed the same electoral votes in some of the states.

In the event of an actual tie, the U.S. Constitution says that the House of Representatives chooses the next president. Each state delegation receives one vote, and ballots aren't cast until January 6, three days after the new House takes office [source: The Washington Post].

In the Tilden/Hayes contest of 1876, Congress set up a bipartisan committee to pick the next president. Republican members of the committee outnumbered their Democratic counterparts and chose Hayes in a controversial decision [source: CBS News].

Because this election took place prior to the passage of the 20th amendment in 1933, Congress was in office until March of the following year -- three months after the deadline passed. This raised an intriguing possibility in which members of a lame-duck Congress, upset that they weren't re-elected, could use their remaining power to choose a new president against the will of voters they no longer felt they represented.

This notion struck the Senate judiciary committee investigating that possibility as just wrong. "It is quite apparent that such a power ought not to exist, and that the people having expressed themselves at the ballot box should through the Representatives then selected, be able to select the President for the ensuing term…" [source: Cornell University Law].

But the title of lame duck is applied more often to the president than to members of Congress. On the next page, we'll look at what some commanders-in-chief have done with the free time they've found over the years.


Presidential Lame Ducks

President Bill Clinton thanks supporters in Massachusetts nine days before he left office in 2001.
Darren McCollester/Newsmakers/Getty Images

Many lame duck presidents travel abroad in the hopes of establishing peace in order to leave a legacy in their wake as they leave office. President George W. Bush undertook such a trip when he visited the Middle East for the first time as president in January 2008. Ronald Reagan met with then Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to finalize the end of the Cold War. Other presidents work feverishly to get new legislation pushed through. And other lame duck presidents can simply be downright nasty as they prepare to leave office.

One action that a lame duck president can take (and traditionally does) is to issue presidential pardons. Although presidents have the power to issue pardons each year, the ones that come out of a lame duck's office can be particularly scandalous. President George H.W. Bush pardoned some former White House staffers who were involved in the Iran-Contra affair that took place while Bush was vice-president [source: The Independent]. On his last day in office on Jan. 20, 2001, President Bill Clinton issued scores of pardons, including for his brother and the husband of one of his fundraisers [source: Department of Justice].


President Jimmy Carter was almost able to pull the very thorn from his side that had cost him the 1980 election: the Iran hostage crisis. Before he left office in January 1981, Carter vowed to end the 444-day hostage situation that followed the siege of the American embassy in Tehran in 1977 before he left office. On his last full day in office, Carter worked throughout the night in an effort to finalize negotiations. He just missed his mark, however; the hostages were released only a few minutes after Reagan was sworn in as President [source: PBS].

Presidential lame ducks can also pull surprises from their sleeves, too. Republican president Ronald Reagan signed "a big welfare bill" before leaving office [source: Wall Street Journal]. And sometimes lame ducks can be lucky ducks. In 1801, lame duck president John Adams was presented with a vacancy in the Supreme Court --appointing a justice is a chance to leave a legacy. Adams appointed Justice John Marshall [source: Supreme Court History].

Lame duck presidents may get creative with their power during their last year in office. Activity may increase: The Carter administration issued 24,000 pages of new regulations on its way out; Clinton left 26,000 pages. By doing so, a president buries his successor in a mountain of paperwork, effectively "extending his influence beyond the limit of his term" [source: Boston University].

Clinton also was accused by the succeeding administration of George W. Bush of removing all of the "W"s from the computer keyboards in the White House [source: Boston University].

Sometimes, a president no longer has the backing to get the things done that he'd like to in his last year. Harry S. Truman's approval rating was so low at the end of his presidency (22 percent) [source: National Journal] that he simply got on a train and went home at the end of his term [source: The Houston Chronicle].

Every president wants to end his presidency on a high note; not all do. Some are more "lame" than others. But as Democrat senator Patrick Leahy put it in 2007, "No president is ever a lame duck. He's still president" [source: National Journal].

Read more about American politics and other related topics on the next page.


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More Great Links

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