What's a Lame Duck?

Google Questions
tags: lame duck

Brian Johnson is a student at George Mason University and an HNN intern. 

According to Google Trends every two years there is a surge in search interest for the term, “lame duck.” These surges of interest coincide with presidential and legislative elections in the United States.  As we approach Election Day this November, the spike in interest has quickly returned.  Everyone is asking, what is a lame duck?

Merriam-Webster defines a lame duck as “an elected official or group continuing to hold political office during the period between the election and the inauguration of a successor.” This definition is generally referred to as the original meaning of the term and would also mean President Obama is not technically a lame duck until November 8, 2016.  Jordan Weissmann, senior business and economics correspondent for Slate, has said that Obama is currently a second term president, not a lame duck, according to this definition.

Using this definition, a president is only a lame duck for a little over two months, from the election in November until January 20, when the president is inaugurated.  It used to be a lot longer.  Until the 20th Amendment to the Constitution (1933) inauguration day took place on March 4.  The amendment moved up the inauguration date expressly to shorten the period when the incumbent was serving as a lame duck. 

The two-term tradition established by George Washington affected the perception that all presidents in their second term were, in effect, lame ducks, because they weren't expected to run for re-election. Then Democrat Franklin Roosevelt shattered the two-term tradition by running for a third and then a fourth term.  Republicans afterwards proposed an amendment to the Constitution to limit presidents to two terms.  The amendment was ratified in 1951. So we were back to where we started after George Washington.  Since then all presidents in their second term, both Republican and Democratic, have worked hard to demonstrate that though they might not be eligible for a third term they were by no means lame. Their political opponents, of course, have sought to shape the perception that they were.

This is what Republicans have been doing in Barack Obama's final years in office, much to the administration’s frustration. This past October President Obama, speaking at a Democratic National Committee Fundraiser in Chicago, said, “About a year and a half ago, people we're saying I was a lame duck. We've been flapping our wings a lot over that year and a half.”

Although most presidents usually find it difficult to rack up accomplishments in their final year in office, President Obama has been successful in doing so. In many ways his final year is proving to be one of his most consequential.  James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University, recently told Politico Magazine that Obama’s final year will be remembered for building relations with Cuba, the nuclear deal with Iran, and major agreements on trade and climate change.

Republicans have tried to stigmatize Obama as a lame duck to curb his power.  Their most energetic use of the phrase came in the wake of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.  Within hours Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell announced that he would refuse to hold hearings on any nominee President Obama submitted to the Senate for “advice and consent.”  The reason, he suggested, was that President Obama is now a lame duck.

 Are the Republicans right to call Obama a lame duck? Their use of the term departs from the dictionary definition, but politicians frequently define words in their own way when it’s convenient.  This is true of both Democrats and Republicans.


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