Lame duck (politics)

In American politics, a lame duck or outgoing politician is an elected official whose successor has already been elected or will be soon. The official is often seen as having less influence with other politicians due to the limited time left in office. Conversely, a lame duck is free to make decisions that exercise the standard powers with little fear of consequence, such as issuing executive orders, pardons, or other controversial edicts. Lame duck politicians result from term limits, planned retirement, or electoral losses. Even at the local level, politicians who do not seek re-election lose their credibility and influence to fellow councilmen. Projects uncompleted may fall to the wayside as their influence is greatly diminished.


The status can be due to:

  • having lost a re-election bid
  • choosing not to seek another term, which would start at the expiration of the current term
  • a term limit which keeps the official from running for that particular office again
  • the abolition of the office, which must nonetheless be served out until the end of the official's term.[1]

Lame duck officials tend to have less political power, as other elected officials are less inclined to cooperate with them. One example was the 146 day–long presidential transition period (November 8, 1932 to March 4, 1933) at the end of Herbert Hoover's presidency, prior to the start of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. After the election, Roosevelt refused Hoover's requests for a meeting to come up with a joint program to stop the crisis and calm investors, claiming it would limit his options, and as this "guaranteed that Roosevelt took the oath of office amid such an atmosphere of crisis that Hoover had become the most hated man in America".[2] During this period of essentially leaderless government, the U.S. economy suffered after thousands of banks failed.[3]

However, lame ducks are also in the peculiar position of not facing the consequences of their actions in a subsequent election, giving them greater freedom to issue unpopular decisions or appointments. Examples include last-minute midnight regulations issued by executive agencies of outgoing US presidential administrations and executive orders issued by outgoing presidents.[4] Such actions date back to the Judiciary Act of 1801 ("Midnight Judges Act"), in which Federalist President John Adams and the outgoing 6th Congress amended the Judiciary Act to create more federal judge seats for Adams to appoint and the Senate to confirm before the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated and the Democratic-Republican majority 7th Congress convened. In more recent history, US President Bill Clinton was widely criticized for issuing 140 pardons and other acts of executive clemency on his last day in office, including two former close colleagues, donors, fellow Democratic members, and his own half-brother.[5]

In many countries, toward the facilitation of a smooth transition, an outgoing president accepts advice from and consults with the president-elect.

Origins of the term

The phrase "lame duck" was coined in the eighteenth century at the London Stock Exchange, to refer to a stockbroker who defaulted on his debts.[6][7] The first known mention of the term in writing was made by Horace Walpole, from a letter in 1761 to Sir Horace Mann: "Do you know what a Bull and a Bear and Lame Duck are?"[8] In 1791 Mary Berry wrote of the Duchess of Devonshire's loss of £50,000 in stocks, "the conversation of the town" that her name was to be "posted up as a lame duck".[9] In the literal sense, the term refers to a duck which is unable to keep up with its flock, making it a target for predators.

It was transferred to politicians in the nineteenth century, the first recorded use is in the Congressional Globe (then the official record of the United States Congress) of January 14, 1863: "In no event ... could [the Court of Claims] be justly obnoxious to the charge of being a receptacle of 'lame ducks' or broken down politicians."[10]



In Australia, regardless of when the election is held, the Senate (upper house) sits from July 1 following the election to June 30 six years later, while the newly elected members of the House of Representatives (lower house) take their seats immediately after an election. A Senate that is destined to lose its majority as a result of such a change is called a lame-duck Senate and often attracts criticism if it blocks Government measures introduced in the House of Representatives.

For example, after the 2004 election, it became clear that the governing Liberal Party/National Party coalition would gain a majority in the new Senate, which was due to sit the following July. In May, some months after the elections but before the new Senate came to power, the old Senate refused to pass new tax laws that had been passed by the House, which served to merely delay the passage of those laws until the new Senate assembled.

In the 2010 Australian federal election, Senator Steve Fielding of the minor party Family First lost his seat and subsequently threatened to block supply if the Labor Party was successful in forming a minority government.


Unlike the United States Congress, there is no "lame duck" session of Parliament in most Commonwealth countries between the general election and swearing in of elected officials. In almost all cases, the outgoing prime minister or premier hands over power directly to their designated successor after a leadership contest or general election. Usually, when the leader of a ruling party steps down, they also relinquish their caucus leadership role at around the same time, so there is no need for an interim caucus leader. After an election retiring/defeated members of United States Congress do continue to wield their full authority until their term ends, by contrast the power of outgoing Canadian parliamentarians is limited. Instead the departing prime minister or premier and cabinet ministers that were members of the now dissolved parliament will serve in an "acting" or "caretaker" capacity (i.e. not being able to make important appointments nor policy declarations) until the new parliament convenes; in one example when Sir Charles Tupper attempted to make appointments after losing the 1896 Canadian election the Governor General refused to act on this.

A notable exception to the above is the transition between William Lyon Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent, making it perhaps the only lame duck example in Canadian federal politics. After resigning the leadership of the Liberals, King became parliamentary leader and continued as Prime Minister of Canada for some months following the leadership election of his successor, St. Laurent, who became party leader but continued as a member of King's cabinet during this time.

While Pierre Trudeau retired from politics in 1984, he directly handed power over to John Turner after the leadership contest. However, Trudeau recommended that Governor General Jeanne Sauvé appoint over 200 Liberals to well-paying patronage positions, including Senators, judges, and executives on various governmental and crown corporation boards, widely seen as a way to offer "plum jobs" to loyal party members. These appointments generated a severe backlash across the spectrum.[11] Turner had the right to recommend that the appointments be cancelled: advice that Sauvé would have been required to follow by constitutional convention. However, he let them stand and made a further 70 appointments himself.[11] Turner refused to produce a written agreement he had made with Trudeau before taking office, documenting a secret deal that saw Trudeau step down early. This is seen by many as Trudeau attempting to exercise some lame duck influence before resigning as Prime Minister.[11][12]

New Zealand

In 1984, a constitutional crisis arose when the outgoing "lame duck" Prime Minister Robert Muldoon refused to follow the wishes of a new incoming government led by David Lange.[13] This was the only time in New Zealand where a "lame duck" Prime Minister did not follow the wishes of the incoming government.

United States

In U.S. politics, the period between (presidential and congressional) elections in November and the inauguration of officials early in the following year is commonly called the "lame duck period". A president is a lame duck after a successor has been elected, during which time the outgoing president and president-elect usually embark on a transition of power.

Until 1933, inaugurations occurred on March 4. Congress usually had two sessions, the second of which was usually held from the December after the election of the next Congress until March. This session was commonly called the "lame duck session". Criticism of this process led to the passage of the 20th Amendment in 1933, which moved the beginning of the new Congress to January 3 and the inauguration of the president to January 20, thus shortening the lame duck period.

A president elected to a second term is sometimes seen as a lame duck from early in the second term, since term limits prevent them from contesting re-election four years later. However, not personally having to face the electorate again makes a second-term president more powerful than they were in their first term as they are thus freer to take politically unpopular actions. However this comes with caveats, as the de facto leader of their political party, the president's actions affect how the party performs in the midterm elections two years into the second term, and, to some extent, the success of that party's nominee in the next presidential election four years in the future. For these reasons, it can be argued that a president in their second term is not a lame duck at all.

The term "lame duck president" traditionally is reserved for a president who is serving out the remainder of their term after having been defeated for re-election. In this sense, the following presidents, since the twentieth century, have been lame ducks: William Howard Taft, who was defeated for re-election in 1912; Herbert Hoover, who was defeated for re-election in 1932; Gerald R. Ford, who was defeated in 1976; Jimmy Carter, who was defeated for re-election in 1980; and George H. W. Bush, who was defeated for re-election in 1992. To date, he is the last sitting president to lose in a re-election bid.

In his farewell speech from the office of president in January 2017 Barack Obama jokingly quipped, "You can tell that I'm a lame duck because nobody's following instructions" when the cheering and applause from the crowd prevented him from commencing his speech.

Vatican City

On February 11, 2013, when Pope Benedict XVI announced that he was resigning within 17 days, he was called a lame duck pope by some media outlets.[14] Also, due to Pope John Paul II's long and debilitating illness, some journalists (such as TIME's Jeff Israely) described the final years of his reign as a lame duck papacy.[15]


The discontent with the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela saw the opposition being elected to hold the majority in the National Assembly of Venezuela for the first time since 1999 following the 2015 parliamentary election.[16] As a result of that election, the lame duck National Assembly consisting of United Socialist officials filled the Supreme Tribunal with allies.[16][17] Into early 2016, the Supreme Court alleged that voting irregularities occurred in the parliamentary elections and stripped four Assembly members of their seats, preventing an opposition supermajority in the National Assembly which would be able to challenge President Maduro.[16] The Assembly nevertheless swore in the members in question, in response to which the Supreme Court ruled that the Assembly was in contempt of court and in violation of the constitutional order.[18] The Trbunal then began to approve multiple actions performed by Maduro and granted him more powers.[16] later stripped the National Assembly of legislative powers, and took those powers for itself; which meant that the Tribunal might have been able to create laws, causing the 2017 constitutional crisis.[19]



In sports usage, a coach or general manager in the final year of their contract without a forthcoming contact extension is often described as a lame duck.[20][21]

However, if a team is on track to miss the playoffs, a coach or general manager can be regarded as a lame duck even if they are under multiyear contracts, if they are expected to be fired shortly before or once the season ends.[22] Often taking the blame as the team is out of contention for the postseason, the coach or/and general manager is seen as a poor fit or otherwise does not relate well with others – players and other coaches, the media, his superiors and so forth – and a change in leadership is apparently forthcoming or desired. Often, there will be rumors of a coach and/or manager departure – often by dismissal or forced resignation (also known as "by mutual consent") – with said rumors often beginning several games before the end of the season. Dismissal of the coach and/or manager once the team is eliminated from reaching the postseason, rather than waiting for the conclusion of the season, does cut short their "lame duck" status and clears the way for new hires. In that case, an interim coach and/or interim manager will be appointed to see out the remainder of the season, though their predecessors may still remain on the club payroll as a "special advisor" until their contracts expires.[23]

See also


  1. "lame duck". Merriam Webster Online. Retrieved March 10, 2008.
  2. Gibbs, Nancy (November 10, 2008). "When New President Meets Old, It's Not Always Pretty". TIME.
  3. Rudney, Robert. "Lessons Learned from the 1932–1933 Presidential Transition". Retrieved October 30, 2008.
  4. Froomkin, Dan. "Approaching the Midnight Hour." Washington Post November 20, 2008.
  5. Archived July 7, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  6. "Lame Duck". Word Retrieved December 15, 2008.
  7. Edward Stringham, Dept. of Economics. "The Emergence of the London Stock Exchange as a Self Policing Club". George Mason University. SSRN 1676253. Retrieved March 1, 2011.
  8. "Lame duck". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved December 15, 2008.
  9. Amanda Foreman, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1998 :253.
  10. Ken Greenwald. "Lame Duck". Wordwizard. Retrieved December 15, 2008.
  11. Mulroney: The Politics of Ambition, by John Sawatsky, Toronto 1991, McFarlane, Walter, and Ross publishers.
  12. Donaldson, p. 320; Newman, p. 71.
  13. Russell, Marcia (1996). Revolution: New Zealand from Fortress to Free Market. Hodder Moa Beckett. p. 69. ISBN 1869584287.
  14. Stanford, Peter (February 11, 2013). "Pope resigns: The pope who was not afraid to say sorry". London.
  15. Israely, Jeff (September 29, 2003). "The Pope's Decline: A Lame Duck In Rome?".
  16. Casey, Nicholas; Torres, Patricia (March 30, 2017). "Venezuela Muzzles Legislature, Moving Closer to One-Man Rule". The New York Times. Retrieved March 31, 2017.
  17. "Venezuela's Lame-Duck Congress Names New Supreme Court Justices". Bloomberg. December 23, 2015. Retrieved March 31, 2017.
  18. Deutsche Welle. 30.03.2017. Venezuela Supreme Court takes over legislative powers from National Assembly.
  19. "Venezuela 'coup': Alarm grows as court takes power". BBC. March 31, 2017. Retrieved March 31, 2017.
  20. "Lame Duck Coach Definition - Sporting Charts". Retrieved February 26, 2019.
  21. ago, Brad Berreman 3 weeks (January 31, 2019). "Cowboys prepared to make Jason Garrett a lame duck". Retrieved February 26, 2019.
  22. Sun, Ottawa; Sports; Hockey; Senators, Ottawa; Email, Share Senators' dismantling continues as lame-duck coach helplessly looks on Tumblr Pinterest Google Plus Reddit LinkedIn; Tumblr; Pinterest; Plus, Google; Reddit; LinkedIn; Email (February 24, 2019). "Senators' dismantling continues as lame-duck coach helplessly looks on - Ottawa Sun". Retrieved February 26, 2019.
  23. Tucker, Ross. "Don't delay the inevitable: Keeping a lame-duck coach around..." The Athletic. Retrieved February 26, 2019.
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