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Is Obama a lame duck? With less than two years left in office, President Obama is trying to defy those who insist his power is waning.

The morning after the Democrats' resounding defeat in the midterm elections last November, the world seemed ready to bestow a new title on President Obama: lame duck.

"Obama a 'lame duck' for last two years of his presidency," screamed a headline in Britain's Daily Mail.

"Unfortunately for the president, his lame duck status has intensified dramatically," commentator Chris Stirewalt said on a Fox News political talk show here at home.

What exactly is a lame duck? And does Obama qualify? A lame duck is an elected official whose power has waned after being defeated for re-election, deciding not to run again, or not running again because term limits won't allow it. Why a lame duck? Because it's weak and can't keep up with the rest of the flock.

The term traces its roots to 18th-century Britain. In the U.S., the 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951, built a certain lame-duck status into the presidency when it prohibited presidents from running for a third term. (The amendment was spurred by Franklin D. Roosevelt's four terms in the White House, which some viewed as too many.)

Obama is the fifth president since then to confront the problem of trying to remain effective during his last years in office. The others were Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush (see box).

There are plenty of reasons why a president in Obama's shoes might be inclined to limp off into the sunset. Republicans took control of Congress in November by winning a majority in the Senate and adding to their majority in the House of Representatives. And with the 2016 presidential election already gathering steam, some people are beginning to look past Obama toward his successor.

Bypassing Congress

But despite the rebuke voters handed his party at the polls, Obama has gone on the offensive. He issued an executive order that will temporarily shield about 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and allow them to work legally in the United States. He sealed a major climate-change deal, announcing that China and the U.S., the world's top-two carbon emitters, will make significant cuts in emissions. And he re-established diplomatic ties with Cuba for the first time in 50 years. None of these actions required congressional approval.

"The midterm defeat energized him," says Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "It gave him a degree of getup-and-go that didn't seem to be there for a while."

No matter how hard he pushes, Obama will have little chance of getting initiatives he supports--like higher taxes on wealthier Americans and free community college tuition--through a Republican-led Congress in the next two years. And Republicans have their own agenda: repealing Obamacare, the law requiring all Americans to have health insurance; and expanding the Keystone Pipeline, which carries oil from Canada's tar sands to the United States. Obama has promised to veto both.

With even more gridlock in Washington likely, experts say Obama will focus on cementing his legacy. For instance, he'll make the case, as he did in his State of the Union speech in January, that his policies have helped turn around the economy. Unemployment has dropped to 5.6 percent from a high of 10 percent in 2009.

"I'm not going to be stopping for a minute in the effort to make life better for ordinary Americans," Obama said in December. "My presidency is entering the fourth quarter. Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter."

The 2016 Election

As the American economy has improved, so have Obama's approval ratings, but they remain lukewarm. Forty-nine percent of Americans approve of the job he's doing, according to Gallup. A recent NBC poll found that 59 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. That could complicate Obama's goal of helping get a Democrat elected to succeed him in 2016.

Ronald Reagan is the only lame duck to have handed the White House keys to a member of his own party (his vice president, George H.W. Bush, in 1989). Obama hopes to be the second. Already, many potential candidates--including Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Jeb Bush--are gearing up for a possible run.

The next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue could have a big say in how many of Obama's programs and policies remain in place after he leaves office.

"Presidents who have great legacies have to get their party's successor candidate elected," says Yale Law School professor John Fabian Witt. "Unless they do that, their legacy can get undone."

With reporting by Alan Rappeport of The New York Times.

Down, But Not Out

These "lame duck" presidents managed to get things accomplished

Ronald Reagan

(Republican, 1981-89)

The first part of Reagan's second term was marred by a scandal in which his administration secretly sold arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages. But in 1987, Reagan negotiated a landmark arms-control treaty with the Soviet Union. The treaty reduced the number of medium-range nuclear missiles and helped lay the foundation for the end of the Cold War in 1991.

Bill Clinton

(Democrat, 1993-2001)

In 1998, Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives for lying about his relationship with a young White House intern, but was acquitted by the Senate. For the last three years of his term, Clinton presided over balanced federal budgets for the first time since 1969. In 2000, Clinton signed a bill that normalized trade relations with China.

George W. Bush

(Republican, 2001-09)

With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragging on and U.S. death tolls rising, Bush's approval ratings dipped during his final years in office. But his administration's response to the financial crisis in late 2008 was credited by many economists with preventing a total meltdown of the U.S. economy and perhaps a second Great Depression.
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Title Annotation:NATIONAL; Barack Obama
Author:Smith, Patricia
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 23, 2015
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