Recently, somewhere (I can't remember where) I saw the term "lame duck" used in the usual way it is used today -- to refer generally to some elected political official who had lost effective power for one reason or another. Often, the term is simply used to describe an elected official who, because of term limits, cannot run for another term. By that definition, because of the two-year presidential term limit set by the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution (adopted in 1951 by a Republican Congress in retribution for FDR's more than three terms in office), any president of the United States elected to a second full term is automatically a "lame duck" president upon taking office at the beginning of the second term.
The implication, of course, is that the poor sucker has no effective power or influence to do anything, because no one will pay any attention or ascribe any authority to someone who cannot run for that office again. This common usage of the word is wrong, and frankly, nonsense. Many presidents (and other term-limited officials) have had very effective final terms. Indeed, if this usage of the word made any sense, every single President of Mexico would be a lame duck for his or her entire term, since under the Mexican constitution, el Presidente is allowed to serve only ONE six-year term.
Historically speaking, the proper use of the term "lame duck" is for an elected official who is serving out the remainder of his or her term after the date of the election held to select the individual to hold that office for the next successive term. During that time period, the old office-holder is not viewed as being as important as the individual just elected to take his or her place. All eyes will be turned on the person just elected to take office, rather than on the person whose term of office will shortly be up. (The expression is applied to someone serving out the term, whether or not that individual ran for the next term and was defeated, or instead just chose not to run and observed the election from the sidelines, as it were, while it took place between two other candidates.)
Thus, to give a recent example, after Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the election of 1980 (held in November of that year), Carter was a true lame duck between the date of his defeat in the election up to Reagan's inauguration in January 1981. You will recall that something very significant in fact happened during this period: namely, the release of the infamous American hostages in Tehran by the Iranian islamist government, a release that is now believed to have been pre-arranged by the Reagan campaign team behind the backs of the elected American government, in order to embarrass and weaken the Carter Administration during the election.
This "lame duck" period used to be much longer, before the passage of the 20th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Under the Constitution as originally adopted, the terms of the Congress as well as of the President and Vice-President began on March 4, or four full months after the elections held to fill those posts. The lengthy period between the election and the assumption of office was necessary because of the length of time needed to travel the arduous journey from one end of the country to the other under the conditions in effect at that time (no planes, trains, or paved roads).
This long period had quite an effect on at least two momentous occasions: first, during the four month period between the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 and his accession to office in March 1861, when lame-duck President James Buchanan diddled away the remainder of his term while the entire South seceded from the Union and Lincoln was obliged to watch helplessly from the sidelines unable to do anything about it; and second, during the comparable four month period of worsening Great Depression between the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in November 1932 and his taking office in March 1933, as the do-nothing Administration of Herbert Hoover continued doing nothing while FDR had to cool his heels in the wings waiting for a chance to start the New Deal.
A very significant thing (almost) happened during this latter period -- the (attempted) assassination of FDR before his taking office. On February 15, 1933, Giuseppe Zangara, an immigrant bricklayer, tried unsuccessfully to assassinate FDR while Roosevelt was giving a speech in Miami, Florida. Zangara failed, although he did manage accidentally to kill the Mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak. If this attempt had been successful, Vice-President-elect John Nance Garner would have been sworn in as president on March 4, 1933. Garner is remembered for one thing: his infamous description of the office of the Vice President as not being worth a bucket of warm "spit" [sic]. Imagine what might have happened in the continuing Great Depression and onset of World War II if the nonentity and rather conservative Garner had been President. rather than the great FDR!
The situation was changed by the adoption of the 20th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1933, which reduced the time between the election and the accession to office for President, Vice-President, and Congress. Under the 20th Amendment, as is well known today, the terms of Senators and Representatives end on January 3 at noon in the year when they are otherwise scheduled to end, and those of the President and Vice-President end at noon on January 20th.
And that's why we're all looking forward to January 20th, 2009, with such great anticipation today. And it's also why George W. cannot be truly said to be a "lame duck" until after the election to be held in November of this year. There's still a great deal of horrific damage he could do as Commander in Chief between now and then. Did someone mention the word Iran?