Ducking Lame-Duck Status

It’s unusual for a president to admit he has no plan to guide events. Yet it wasn’t entirely surprising to hear President Obama tell reporters, “We don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with Syria. It’s been clear for months that Obama has no guiding framework for his presidency.

“President Obama’s recent speeches and remarks make it obvious that he is not making any serious effort to govern or to drive world events,” writes Republican strategist Ed Rogers in the Washington Post. “Except for covering the basics, he seems to have taken something like an early retirement.”

Reporter A.B. Stoddard of The Hill adds that “the president is giving Americans the sense as he gives up on Congress, he’s kind of giving up on his job. They know he’s bolting from the building to go to Starbucks and Chipotle. He’s getting bored in the cocoon. He’s planning his post-presidency.”

But that’s natural, right? He’s midway through his second term, and his party controls just one house of Congress. History suggests Obama will be sidelined.

Well, not so fast. There have been three other two-term presidencies since 1976, and each featured major successes at or around this point. Consider Ronald Reagan’s historic 1986, when he managed to steer two pieces of controversial legislation through a divided Congress.

Reagan’s party controlled the Senate until the 1986 midterm elections, when Democrats took over. But he never enjoyed a House majority; Speaker Tip O’Neill was one of the most influential people in D.C. throughout Reagan’s first term, and his replacement, Jim Wright, enjoyed a solid Democrat majority in 1986.

Yet Reagan signed two sweeping reform bills that year alone. Journalist Jeffrey Birnbaum called the Tax Reform Act of 1986 “the broadest revision of the federal income tax in history.” Writing in the Washington Post 20 years later, Birnbaum recalled that the act “had lawmakers, lobbyists and journalists in Washington in an uproar for two years. Despite nearly dying several times, the measure eventually passed, producing a simpler code with fewer tax breaks and significantly lower rates. The changes affected every family and business in the nation.” Reagan had long championed tax reform; as a “lame duck” president, he delivered it.

He also signed broad reforms to how our military is organized.