It’s a regular occurrence in American politics. Sometime toward the end of a president’s run, the most powerful political leader on Earth suddenly seems to slip from view. His term of office isn’t over yet, but this figure who normally invades our thoughts every day turns into a ghost of his former omnipresent self.
Why do we call outgoing presidents “lame ducks”? The term is London stock-market slang, circa 18th century, for a broker who weaseled on his debts -- someone who was powerless to pay up.
Applied soon thereafter to American politics, it now refers to a president who limps but cannot fly. He counts down his last days roaming the White House in his bathrobe, waxing stoical about his legacy and furiously issuing controversial pardons. Bill Clinton presented a hilarious video of his lame-duck period at the April 2000 White House Correspondents’ Assn. Dinner, in which he chased after Hillary’s limo to deliver her forgotten brown-bag lunch.
Traditionally, an outgoing president is a lame duck between election day in November and his successor’s inauguration on Jan. 20 the next year. But in reality, the lame-duck phenomenon can kick in whenever it becomes clear that a president no longer truly drives the agenda.
For Lyndon Johnson, it happened in March 1968, when setbacks in the Vietnam War and an unexpectedly strong primary showing by Democratic challenger Eugene McCarthy persuaded him not to seek reelection. Harry Truman was saddled with the moniker after the Democrats lost control of Congress in the 1946 elections -- critics urged him to resign! -- but he recovered to win the 1948 election and four more years. The passage of the 22nd Amendment in 1951, which limits presidents to two terms, has ensured that, to some extent, as soon as a president is reelected, he will be outfitted with the lame-duck bill.
President Bush, it’s fair to say, started limping fairly early. Since last November, when the election coverage kicked into high gear, he’s been disappearing from public consciousness. His State of the Union address, which fell in the middle of two hard-fought primary campaigns, barely registered a blip. Barack Obama and John McCain are more likely to lead news broadcasts.
Even during an international crisis -- the Russian invasion of Georgia -- the news media at first paid as much attention to the candidates’ responses as to Bush’s. The president’s jabs at Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin came off as more perfunctory than powerful, and on the world stage, it was French President Nicolas Sarkozy who stepped up to lead, however ineffective his cease-fire proved to be. Indeed, the brief time span between now and the next president’s ascension may be one reason Putin chose to send in the tanks when he did.
All in all, Bush’s lame-duck status seems particularly acute. Several reasons explain why. His party lacks a congressional majority, and his popular standing, which has been dismal for almost three years, keeps him from drawing strength from public opinion -- as Clinton and Ronald Reagan did -- to notch notable late-term achievements.
Moreover, unlike every retiring president since Truman, Bush isn’t handing the baton of party leadership to his vice president. Indeed, for the first time in more than a century, the president’s party has picked a nominee whose allure lies primarily in his sharp differences with the incumbent. As a result, not only Bush but the conservative movement that he led and embodied seems to have run its course.
Although a sunset-bound president usually doesn’t pass any major laws, he remains the most powerful person in the land, with a vast executive branch at his disposal. A lame-duck president, even without a congressional majority, can be powerful, if he chooses.
Probably the first president to use his waning days to significant ends was John Adams, who, after losing his bid for a second term to Thomas Jefferson in 1800, promptly created 16 federal judgeships and proceeded to fill them with what came to be called “midnight judges.” Besides attempting to reshape the judiciary for political ends, his actions led to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Marbury vs. Madison, which codified the exercise of judicial review. (Marbury was one of Adams’ appointees.)
Closer to our day, after John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in 1960, Dwight Eisenhower’s administration finalized plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion, well out of public view; it was JFK, though, who, four months into his presidency, carried out the fiasco.
Lame ducks don’t always operate in the shadows of a fading spotlight. In December 1980, Jimmy Carter -- having lost his bid for a second term and taken the Democratic Senate down with him -- knew that the incoming Reagan Republicans would have little regard for new environmental regulations. Carter and congressional Democrats quickly passed the “Superfund” environmental law, which allowed for the cleanup of toxic waste, and the Alaska Lands Act, which safeguarded millions of acres of terrain. (Clinton also got the conservation bug toward his presidency’s end, signing executive orders that protected federal lands.)
Bush, too, is less passive than he seems. His political staff in the bureaucracy is quietly advancing a conservative agenda. The White House recently proposed a radical change to the Endangered Species Act that would allow government agencies to bypass a heretofore mandatory scientific review process that evaluates the impact of their actions. The Department of Health and Human Services drafted a new rule that could redefine abortion to include some forms of contraception and allow doctors and pharmacists to deny them to women as they see fit. And the Education Department has been plunging ahead with a plan to force colleges and universities to submit to standardized assessments that could do for higher education what the No Child Left Behind Act has done for secondary schooling.
On foreign policy, another realm where even a weak president wields significant power, Bush has also made important, if under-reported, moves -- less to promote an ideological worldview, in this case, than to try to salvage his foreign policy legacy. He has retooled his stands on North Korea, Iran and even Iraq. The administration endorsed “time horizons” for withdrawal from Iraq, had a high-level aide sit down in nuclear talks with Iran and agreed to have Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice join six-way talks with North Korea.
To some extent, these steps are a function of Bush’s clipped wings. The turn toward workaday diplomacy in foreign affairs results from the failure of his grandiose ambitions; the resort to sly changes in federal regulations comes after the demise of big-ticket legislation. But the 24/7 media focus on the campaign, Bush’s shambling style and the feeling of a page turning on the conservative movement shouldn’t deceive us into thinking that this administration’s work is done. Bush may well be a lame duck, but he isn’t a dead one.
David Greenberg is a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, a columnist for Slate and the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.”