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The Real Story Behind the Phrase ‘Lame Duck’

Duck
Chris Paul Photography, flickr

When you think of the phrase ‘lame duck,’ you might picture a poor duck walking around with a plaster cast on one of its legs, or webbed feat. While that’s a striking image, it isn’t the right one.

A lame duck is someone, or something that is no longer able to perform in the manner, or at the level previously expected.

Ducks and the London Stock Market

The actual term ‘lame duck’ was coined well before American political commentators usurped it. The phrase actually comes from the London Stock Market and describes investors who cannot repay their debts. Stock markets are now famous for their ‘bulls’ and ‘bears,’ but it seems not so long ago, another common animal used to wander around the financial ‘zoo’ as well. And that was the lame duck.

Lame Ducks in Politics

The term is often used to describe politicians, or people in elected posts, after they have lost a significant amount of power. For example, a mayor or president who wasn’t re-elected (or can’t run for another term), but still has several months left in his or her term of office could be considered a lame duck. Technically, that person still holds the reins of power, but everyone knows he or she is on the way out, so the power of leadership is greatly diminished.

American ‘Duck’ Usage

Lame duck has often been the phrase of choice when describing American presidents. The reason for that is simple. Presidential elections are held in November, but the winner (if it’s a new president) doesn’t officially take the oath of office until January. This is the transitional time for the team of a new president, and the time for the outgoing president to get his or her affairs in order.

The Advantages of Being a Lame Duck

The person left in office still has to govern for a short while, even if most of the populace has focused its attention on the new leader. This loss of power does have a few advantages, though. A ‘lame duck’ president can get away with things he or she might not have gotten away with if expected to serve out another term. This is usually the time when a lot of presidential pardons get handed out, some of them often rather controversial. If there are any executive decisions that can be made, and get past or better yet circumvent Congress (a difficult trick), an outgoing president might leave with a few parting shots, or back a radical bill or amendment he or she wouldn’t have backed if still worried about governing, or managing another reelection campaign.

[Denver Post]

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