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How Lame Is a Lame-duck President?

Presidential Lame Ducks

President Bill Clinton thanks supporters in Massachusetts nine days before he left office in 2001.
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].

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