What Is a Lame-Duck U.S. Presidency?

What Is a Lame-Duck U.S. Presidency?
Photo: Danae Abreu, Shutterstock

Though there isn’t yet a clear winner of the U.S. presidential election, it’s hard not to look a little ahead and consider the different potential outcomes. One of these includes the possibility of approximately three months of a lame-duck presidency, if Joe Biden ends up coming out on top.

But aside from a term that made you giggle, what exactly is a lame-duck presidency? And what could it mean for the U.S.? Here’s a quick primer.

Where did the term ‘lame duck’ originate?

It may sound like an outdated designation for fowl living with a disability, but the roots of the term “lame duck” trace back to the 18th-century London stock market. Originally, it was used to describe an investor without the financial means to meet their obligations. Per the Wall Street Journal:

The idea seemed to be that a bankrupt businessman was impaired like a duck that has been shot. Horace Walpole, an English writer and politician, expressed puzzlement about the new trading terms in a 1761 letter: “Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck are? Nay, nor I either: I am only certain that they are neither animals or fowl.”

The terminology made its way to the United States in the 19th century — initially applied in similar financial terms, then eventually making its way into politics, first referring to members of Congress, and later, presidents. Either way, a “lame duck” is a politician serving out the remainder of their term following the election of their successor, but before they take office.

What is a lame-duck presidency?

Because we (thankfully) have term limits on the office, lame-duck presidencies are inevitable. For example, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama each were lame ducks for their final three months in office. In school we learned that lame duck presidents didn’t really get anything done and essentially ran out of steam — especially in cases where they were ageing, like Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, according to CNN.

In reality, though, the lame-duck narrative can look quite different. For instance, presidential historian David Pietrusza noted that while Obama didn’t do much in terms of new legislation in his final months in office, he did reshape the concept of a lame-duck presidency when he “ratcheted up everything in terms of the regulatory executive order agenda.”

There is also historical precedent of the outgoing president intentionally making things worse for his predecessor in an act of vengeance. One comes following the 1892 presidential election between Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland, and involves the (entirely unnecessary) economic collapse known as the Panic of 1893. (Read more about that situation in this interview with historian Heather Cox Richardson on Slate.)

What could a Trump lame-duck presidency look like?

Whether or not Donald Trump is reelected for a second term, he will, at some point, be a lame-duck president — either for the end of 2020 and the first 20 days of 2021, or the same period, but four years in the future. Based on his previous comments, including refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, it’s a pretty safe bet that if Biden does win the election Trump might fall into the “vengeful” category of lame ducks alongside Harrison.

Though it’s unclear what, exactly, that would look like, Dr. Jeremi Suri, a professor of public affairs and history and Dr. Jeffrey K. Tulis, a professor of government — both at the University of Texas at Austin — made a few predictions in an article in The Bulwark:

Faced with an actual loss, Trump’s behaviour will be unpredictable, as it has been with managing the pandemic…Traditionally, the transition teams prepare briefing books on the ongoing activities of the array of governmental institutions. It is quite possible that these normal and needed aspects of transition might proceed while Donald Trump focuses on openings to enrich himself and his family, ways to punish perceived political enemies, and general opportunities to abuse the constitutional power he holds during the interregnum.

So regardless of the results of the election, buckle up: win or lose, Trump has time to do plenty — especially during a pandemic.

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