As Barack Obama heads into his final two years in office, the media is already calling him a lame duck. As early as July 28, 2014, CNN hosted an article calling Obama a lame duck: “Is Obama a Powerless Lame Duck?” On November 17, the New Yorker mused whether Obama can avoid the lame duck syndrome. More recently, news sites like NBC have suggested that Obama is not a lame duck because he has taken policy by the horns on immigration and Cuba.
Obama has two more years left as President. If he is a lame duck, then every President spends at least a quarter of his time as a lame duck. The concept of a lame duck politician is one who is supposed to be nearly powerless and unable to accomplish anything of significance. It is one of the most contrived terms in politics. Generally, it is meaningless, except for the pundits who want to claim that they know something.
The idea that a politician could be a lame duck was first applied during the Civil War. Its meaning was narrow. It was meant for the time that a politician is still in office, but his successor has been elected. Generally, that is the time between the November election and when the elected candidate takes office. That rarely exceeds two months. It is also an appropriate use. If a successor is waiting to take over, then the incumbent has lost considerable moral authority and political power to push an agenda. Presidents in that situation often don’t want to complicate their successor’s lives so they tend to procrastinate on problems.
In even a more narrow sense, lame duck has been reserved for Presidents who were defeated while seeking a second term. That includes Presidents like Taft, Hoover, Ford, Carter and George H.W. Bush.
Today, the term lame duck is cast about shortly after a President is elected for a second term. In effect, it has become a meaningless phrase. Yet, people who should know better embrace it as an answer to every ineptitude that a President experiences in his second term.
The only thing that lame duck means in these situations is that the commenter has no idea what he or she is talking about. The commenter is also revealing an ignorance of the powers of the Presidency. The Constitution makes no exception for lame ducks. The President has the same powers on the first day in office as he has on the last. Presidents have enormous powers in foreign affairs. They carry significant powers when dealing with Congress. Presidents can still issue executive orders or pardons. Being a lame duck does nothing to impact these powers. A lame duck only means something if the President thinks that he is one.
For the media, calling Obama or any other President a lame duck is just a lazy way for someone to make a comment about Obama’s status without actually having to know anything. It is supposed to be a phrase to point out a neutered Presidency.
Instead, it has become just another buzz word that is used inappropriately. It is the equivalent of a political spitwad. It has no purpose but to annoy. All it does is betray the ignorance of the user. In those cases, it is simply best to move on and find something else to listen or read.