by Piet Coetzer

A Lame duck comes home to roost

Exploring the term that describes officials that are not longer so efficient

Final word - Lame duck
Lame duck 0012.jpg

President Barack Obama has won re-election to the White House. But facing a deeply divided Congress and a looming fiscal crisis, many describe him as starting off his second term as a lame duck president. Essentially it means he will find it difficult to implement his programmes. Although not quite in line with the dictionary definition, the description in this case might be much closer to the truth. 

Summarising the dictionaries' definitions, one could say that it is generally understood that the expression lame duck refers to an elected official who is approaching the end of his or her tenure. It most typically arises as a description for office-holders who have lost an election but have not yet left office.

The American electoral system  regularly lame duck. The election of a new president and other officials takes place in November, but the elected candidates are only inaugurated early in the new year.

The most dramatic example of the effect that such a situation can have occurred between  late 1860 and early 1861 during the transition from president James Buchanan to successor Abraham Lincoln.

Buchanan held the view that states did not have the right to secede from the US, but also that it was illegal for the Federal government to go to war on the matter. Between November 6, 1860 and March 4, 1861when Lincoln was inaugurated, seven states used the opportunity to go their own way. The end result was the American Civil War between the northern and southern states.

The situation of a lame duck, however, is not unique to the US. There are examples in history, such as the New Zealand constitutional crisis in 1984, when the outgoing lame duck Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, refused to follow the wishes of a new incoming government led by David Lange.

Under the Australian system, where the fixed term of office in the Senate does not always fully coincide with the elections for the House of Representative which can be called at any time, a crisis arose as recently as 2004. After the election of that year the governing coalition of the Liberal and National parties was set to gain a majority in the Senate come July 2005. In May 2005 the lame duck Senate refused to pass new tax laws adopted by the House of Representatives.


The notion of a lame duck has its roots in nature, where the duck who falls behind when the brace or flight is on the move is the most likely to fall victim to any predator.

It was first used in a political sense in the 19th century when, in the official record of the US Congress on January 14, 1863, it was written, “In no event . . . could [the Court of Claims] be justly obnoxious to the charge of being a receptacle of lame ducks or broken down politicians”.

Over time it came to be used more broadly to describe a person, official or institution that has lost the ability to function properly, especially one that was previously proficient. And, most generally, to those politicians who are known to be in their final term of office, when colleagues and electors look toward a successor.

In the case of president Obama, the term is now surfacing despite the fact that he has just been re-elected for another four-year term in office. The reason for this is that he does not enjoy the support of the majority in the US Congress at a time when the country faces huge problems in coming to grips with an annual budget deficit in excess of $1 trillion and counting. As America’s sovereign debts mount, this situation has given birth to a new term in the world of government finance, fiscal cliff.

In president Obama’s case it would seem that the lame duck” is going back to its  roots. It turns out that the world of politics was actually a century late in adopting the term. It was in the 18th century, in 1761  to be exact, that the term surfaced for the first time.

And president Obama should take note, it was used to describe a London stockbroker who defaulted on his debts.

The first known mention of the term in writing was made by Horatio Walpole, 4th Earl of Oxford and historian, in a letter in 1761 to Sir Horace(or Horatio) Mann, a member of parliament. "Do you know what a Bull and a Bear and a Lame Duck are?" he asked.

And, 30 years later, someone wrote about the Duchess of Devonshire’s loss of £50 000 on stocks and that “the conversation of town” was that "her name is to be posted up as a lame duck”, not being able to settle her debts. No wonder that the relationship between president Obama and the American Congress has become the proverbial talk of the town as being the ” situation of a lame duck!



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