The President a Lame Duck Incumbent?

It’s a rare phenomenon when an incumbent seeking re-election is faced with the prospect of being a lame duck on the very eve of the election. President Obama is the incumbent in this race. He is a sitting president seeking re-election. As the incumbent, he is eligible to run for a second term and may well win a second term. He is not, in the usual sense, a lame duck president.

A lame duck holds office during the relatively brief interval between an election, when it is determined that someone else will be the next president, and the moment when the new president assumes office at his inauguration. A politician in this position is called a “lame duck” because he or she has comparatively little influence as the clock simply runs out on his or her term.

If a president has completed two terms, then he will not be an incumbent seeking re-election. His party will nominate a different candidate to run in the general election. In this case, the outgoing president will automatically be a lame duck. He will hold office until the new president-elect is sworn in.

If an incumbent president seeking re-election loses the election, then he becomes a lame duck president until the new president-elect is sworn in. He is no longer the incumbent because the election has been decided. He is still president, but his days are numbered.

An incumbent may become a lame duck, but only after the election returns. At least, that is technically the case. But the term “lame duck” is a metaphor for a president whose power is ineffectual because his term is about to run out. But does it stretch the metaphor to say that a president is a lame duck if his power is bound to be ineffectual until his term runs out, even if that won’t happen for another four years? And what if there are strong indicators, prior to a general election, that this will be the case if the incumbent wins the election? He might then that be called a “lame duck incumbent.”

This, I believe, could be President Obama’s situation. He is now the incumbent and may win a second term. If he does, he will not be a lame duck in the usual sense until the next general election four years hence. But there are indicators that Obama’s leadership, should he be allowed a second term, will be threatened by grave difficulties of his own making that could seriously curtail his executive influence, however long his second term lasts. And most recently the most severe challenge has emerged in the form of the massacre that took place at our embassy in Libya in September and the growing impression that the President shirked responsibility, both during the horrific attack and afterward during his effort to manage the flow of information until the election clock runs down.

Here’s the point: if it turns out that a thorough investigation of the facts, called for by the President and the Democrat party, reveals a demoralizing leadership failure and deception by his administration, and this investigation cannot be concluded until a few weeks after the election, and the President wins re-election, then the President will have to face a nation in shock after learning definitively of his dereliction of duty, now compounded by the fact that he was just re-elected and the electorate is stuck with him for four more years. If his popularity has been slipping in the polls during the past few weeks, his approval rating would surely plummet dramatically following the election and detailed knowledge of the events in Libya—if the President has goofed.

This would not be the most auspicious beginning to the President’s second term. And it would not bode well for the future of this country if that should happen.

Still, why think of the President in these final days before the election as a “lame duck incumbent”? That depends on what you make of the evidence against his claim to be oblivious of events occurring at the embassy in Libya when four Americans, including our ambassador, were lost. If you think that he’s disqualified himself already for enjoyment of a second term, then you may think that if he wins he will start his second term in deep trouble that will be a distraction from all else that requires presidential leadership. You may think that, given his incumbency status now, and assuming that he wins re-election, Obama is, even now, a “lame duck incumbent.”

If you think that, you may be right. And if you’re right, then Obama’s in big trouble soon after the election, trouble that will plague his second term as long as it lasts. Not only that, America’s in big trouble. Don’t be surprised if  a predominantly Republican congress calls for impeachment proceedings as soon as the investigation is concluded.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking.

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