Wall Street Journal columnist Neil King ponders a question that seems to have begun on or around January 21, 2013: Is President Obama a lame duck? The answer, as with all questions involving gauzy terms, is: depends on what you consider a lame duck.
King doesn't really offer an answer to the question he poses, calling the current situation in D.C. "lame duckish." "An eerie calm has fallen over the nation’s capital," he writes, "and it feels like a premature case of the lame duck." In part, he suggests, it's because no one expects anything to get done, and even Obama's insistence that he'll act unilaterally seems like so much wing-flapping.
It seems more than a little premature to declare Obama a lame duck. It seems that way, anyway.
Prior to the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933, lame duck sessions were inevitable and lengthy. Congresses generally didn't convene until the December a year after their election, and the old Congress — including people who'd already lost their elections — would serve in the interim. As University of Notre Dame professor John Copeland Nagle explained to NPR in 2010, those lame duck politicians would pass legislation without having to worry about the consequences.
After the 20th Amendment, which moved new sessions up to January, lame duck sessions of Congress still occurred, but with less regularity. (As Nagle notes, the impeachment of President Clinton occurred in one such session.) So the term "lame duck" has been stretched backward, now being applied more broadly to legislators that have lost reelection — including a primary — or who have declared that they will not seek reelection.
What's happening to Obama is slightly different. The latter lame duck definition above — someone who can't seek a new term — has melded with our relatively new perpetual presidential campaign cycle. In other words, we already feel to some extent as though the 2016 campaign has begun (admittedly thanks to the enthusiasm of members of the media like ourselves), and so it is almost as though Obama is already the bystander he will be in December of 2016.
To King's point, the stasis on Capitol Hill contributes to that sense. If Obama isn't doing anything, if Congress isn't getting anything done, it's almost as though everyone is just waiting for the new Congress. This isn't unusual in an election year; already, members of Congress are thinking ahead to the Spring primaries and November general election. But the slow pace of legislative action goes back to last year, too, which was Congress' least productive in recent history. That's in part because of a divided Congress, in which the Republican House and Democratic Senate fail to agree on legislation. And it's in part thanks to a deliberate effort by House Republicans to keep the gears of Congress moving slowly, which culminated in the October 2013 shutdown. And that slow legislative pace makes indulgence in 2016 speculation one of the few stories in town.
But stasis and lame-duckishness are not the same thing. Something will happen on Capitol Hill over the short- to medium-term that will make clear that neither Obama nor Congress are lame ducks, and that this is just a winter lull. Otherwise, everyone who wins an election but has to face retirement or a reelection in the future becomes something of a lame duck — meaning everyone elected to office is at all times seen as a temporary placeholder. And that's not a particularly helpful way to look at Congress.