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Lame Duck in Politics: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:00 Definition Of A Lame Duck
  • 1:40 Lame Ducks And Power
  • 3:20 Problems With Lame Ducks
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

A lame duck is a common term in political science. It refers to a politician about to leave office. In this section, we learn its meaning and look at some examples.

Definition of a Lame Duck

To understand a lame duck, imagine you are back in elementary school. You have spent the whole school year preparing for the state test that you completed 3 weeks ago. Now the school year is wrapping up as summer approaches. Better yet, your teacher knows she will be moving on to another school. How much work are you really getting done?

If your experience is anything like my past experience, you know that not that much academic work gets done in the waning days of a school year. And just as little work gets done at the end of a school year, so too does little work get done at the end of a politician's time in office. Political scientists have developed a term for this period of diminished political activity. They call it a lame duck.

A lame duck refers to a politician who is approaching the end of his or her term and a successor has already been chosen. A lame duck can occur when a politician has lost reelection, decided to retire, abandoned office, or has exhausted his or her term limit. For Presidents, lame duck status usually occurs after a successor has been elected. For Congressmen, lame duck status occurs between the November elections and the swearing in of the New Congress, usually in January.

Lame Ducks Lose Reelection

This political cartoon comments on a lame duck Congress. It shows lame ducks leaving Congress defeated and sad because they have just lost re-election. The sad faces on the ducks show how lame ducks lose power as they are leaving public office.

Lame Ducks And Power

The reason a politician about to leave office is labeled a lame duck is because he or she has dramatically less power than at the beginning of his or her term. If you think about it, this makes sense. Everybody knows the politician is about to leave office. Therefore, there is often no point in passing new laws that the current politician might favor. After all, the incoming politician might reverse all of those changes.

As an example, consider the end of Bill Clinton's presidency in 2000-2001. Despite being the President of the United States, Clinton made very few legislative proposals and had a relatively low profile in politics. The reason? Everybody knew he was about to leave office and he had already served his two terms.

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