With just over two years left in his term, Barack Obama now faces the predictable barrage by some critics and political observers that his remaining time as president will mostly be as a "lame duck." But history shows that presidents can still bring about real change while their term winds down.
“Since lame-duckism is such conventional wisdom, it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Michael Korzi, professor of political science at Towson University in Maryland and director of the master's program in social science. "So even though I don’t know if it necessarily is restricting presidents, the fact that everybody assumes that it is, does seem to have the effect of kind of making them beside the point to an important degree.”
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And that's usually reinforced by the political realities of the results of the midterm elections. In 1986, former president Ronald Reagan was dealt a blow when the Republicans lost control of the Senate. After the Republicans got thumped in the 2006 midterms, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that for the remainder of George W. Bush's term, Americans would be watching the president “clean out his desk.”
"I think it can go in different ways but I think the midterms are one of the mechanisms by which lame duck periods really take shape," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
'Much more constrained'
"They’re much more constrained," he said. "It's hard for a president to do anything on Capitol Hill, but the closer you get to the end, the fewer big legislative accomplishments you’re likely to see."
That lame-duck period can also occur much before the midterms or for other reasons. While the 1998 midterms didn't change the power structure of the House or Senate, Bill Clinton was muted by the distraction of his impeachment proceedings and the fallout of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
"This is why the term can be a little slippery," Korzi said. "I think you can make a pretty strong argument that given the fact that the Republicans took the house in 2010, and then retained it in 2012, there's a sense in which Obama’s second term was always going to have an element of lame duck."
"I think to some degree it's overstated because our system is structured to reduce presidents' options regardless if they can be re-elected or not. Sometimes, a divided government can be just as powerful an obstacle as lame-duckism."
However, presidents do still have options, and can flex some political muscle as their term comes to an end. Reagan, for example, was able to sign a major nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union (the INF treaty), with a goal to eliminate intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles.
Clinton continued to work on deficit reduction, played a role in the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement, signed a number of executive orders (many to do with the conservation of public lands) and issued some controversial pardons.
Bush was able to push ahead with the troop surge in Iraq and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) during the financial crisis, all occurring near the end of his presidency
"Presidents can move to the centre or the other option is to just become more resolute," Zelizer said. "Bush is a good example after 2006. Instead of backing out of Iraq, he increased the number of troops there. He didn’t have much to lose at that point."
"There’s a kind of liberation that comes in those final two years because you don’t have to worry about elections again," Korzi added. "[They] don't have to stand for re-election. [They] don’t have to grovel for votes, so it allows them to do what they might want to do at the risk of alienating supporters and so forth.
"And sometimes you see presidents taking positions that you wouldn't expect them to do."
But Korzi said if Obama makes any bold moves in his final two years, it will have to be something in the foreign policy realm.
Zelizer said he believes there will be limited activity coming out of the White House in those last couple years. And with all eyes on the next election, members of his own party will push back on anything he wants to do that's controversial, he said.
"The combination of the outcome of the midterms with the next presidential election will just create constraints on what he’s going to do."