What is a Lame Duck Political Official?

No decoy: the 111th Congress, now in 'lame-duck session', with a Democratic majority on both houses in its final hours, has proved unexpectedly productive for legislation. Photograph: PA/Barry Batchelor https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/michaeltomasky/2010/dec/21/congress-lame-duck-session

By Dr. David J. Childs
Northern Kentucky University

Introduction- What is a Lame Duck Official
After general elections have taken place the outgoing president is often called a “lame duck” president. The term lame duck “in the literal sense, is a term that refers to a duck which is unable to keep up with its flock, making it a target for predators.” By the nineteenth century lame duck was used to describe politicians who were at the end of their term and had lost much of their power and influence. They are an outgoing politician, an elected official who is going to be replaced in the near future. The official has either chosen not to run again for office, has reached a term limit or has been voted out. As a result the politician is viewed as having less influence and less of an impact on the public and in the political world due to diminishing power.

Conversely, a lame duck official has a great deal of freedom to make decisions that they would not have made while running for office. They are a bit more liberated because the pressure of pleasing the public in order to receive more support is gone. So the president, governor, mayor, council woman or any elected official are free to make decisions that exercise their powers without fear of consequence. A lame duck president may issue controversial executive orders, pardons, or other unpopular edicts. 

Donald Trump as  Lame Duck president
In the general election of 2020 although President Donald J. Trump exercised a great deal of influence over his base, one could see his power diminishing after he lost the election in both the popular vote and in the electoral college. As a general election has come and gone it is a good idea to watch the kind of decisions that a lame duck president will make in their last few months in office. There may be both good and bad things that come out the decisions the president makes during his lame duck period.


Conclusion- Social studies classrooms are ideal places to teach this topic. 

The lame duck phenomenon in politics is a powerful topic to highlight in middle grades and social studies classrooms. When educators introduce students to the topic it helps them to be aware of the various politics surrounding elections. Furthermore, it is also a lesson on the transfer of power and influence. Here are some lesson plans and resources that social studies teachers can use to teach students more about the lame duck phenomenon. 

Other Resources and Readings
What Is a Lame-Duck Presidency?
Ask Civics 101: What Is A ‘Lame Duck’ Session?
What is a ‘lame duck’ president? Hint: The political term has nothing to do with waterfowl
Lame-duck Congress and lame-duck president face huge challenges in coming weeks
How to Defend Against a Lame-Duck Trump Four risks to guard against now
Why we should fear a lame-duck President Trump

Lesson Plans and Teaching Resources
Lame Ducks: Lesson Plan
Lame Ducks: Lesson Plan Lame Duck Lessons – Holiday Edition (Middle School)
Interactive video lesson plan for: The Lame Duck Explained
What Is a Lame-Duck Presidency?
How the 20th Amendment made lame-duck sessions less lame

5 Comments

  1. The idea of a ‘lame duck’ official is very applicable to this current situation. I agree that it is critical for students to understand a concept such as this, as it is often discussed but not necessarily understood. As mentioned in the article, the name itself is a bit of a misnomer; a ‘lame duck’ official is not as lame as described. Due to their decline in the public eye, they could be motivated to make decisions they ordinarily would not. This is especially true in a case where the White House is transitioning between different parties. Even more notably, this comes from an election where the incumbent did not win reelection against the opposing party. A great deal of bitter partisan disputes can erupt from a situation similar to this. It’s been a phenomenon since President John Aadams’ “midnight appointees” and the ensuing political fighting over it. Divides between Democrat and Republican have ensured that either will do what they can to maintain power, even when voted out.

  2. “Lame duck” presidents frequently fly under the radar from the general public. After the stress and emotion that comes from a presidential election, particularly from the 2020 presidential election, people often focus on the winner of the election, rather than the individual who still occupies the White House for another two months. Most people are asking questions about president-elect Biden and what his policies will be when he takes office — forgetting that President Trump has until January 20th of next year to make potentially significant decisions in his last stretch as the President of the United States. The name “lame duck” implies that the politician has little to no power until he steps down — in reality, lame duck politicians have perhaps even MORE power than they had previously, since the public is paying less attention to him/her and they are free to take certain actions that would ordinarily cause a big controversy if done in the middle of their term. The general public should pay more attention to lame duck politicians — the decisions they make before their departure from office should be noticed, questioned, and challenged just as much as decisions made previously during their term.

  3. I really enjoyed this article because I think it is so important to teach this term within our classrooms. It is very important for our students to know that even though Donald Trump or any president in the past, has been voted out of office, they still have the ability to make decisions within the last few months of their term. They can make some crazy decisions that can affect many things and the politics are so important to understand. I know the 8th graders I am with now would love to talk about this topic from our conversations in class. This is a great topic to keep your students up to date on politics, the current election, and just keep them educated in general.

  4. This was an interesting article that I feel offers valuable information towards the concept of a lame duck presidency. This article could pair well, as a contemporary reflection on the Marbury v. Madison case as well. We also are in a transition period where, the 45th president Donald Trump, who (as stated in this article) was for the past 2 years — essentially a lame duck president (and will continue to be until he is releaved of his duties). Likewise, with a current shift in the House and Senate, it can be expected that President-elect Joe Biden may suffer something similar following the 2022 elections.

  5. This post was very interesting to me, as this was the first time I had ever heard to term ‘lame duck’. I was very intrigued that you also commented that they are often liberated to do things they would not have while running for office due to their decreasing popularity. I never thought about this considering the current situation but it is very applicable in our current times. This would be a very interesting topic to discuss with middle and high schoolers. You could analyze their actions at the beginning and end of presidency and have the class decide if they are a lame duck.

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