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Five myths about lame-duck presidents

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Steven G. Calabresi is a Northwestern University law professor and the co-author of “The Unitary Executive: Presidential Power from Washington to Bush.” He served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and is co-founder and chairman of the board of the Federalist Society.

President Obama is now officially a lame duck: no more elections left, and facing GOP majorities in the Senate, House, governors’ mansions — and even the Supreme Court, in a sense, where five of the nine justices were appointed by Republicans. But that doesn’t mean he is powerless. In fact, looking back on two-term presidents reveals that much of what we believe about lame-duck commanders in chief may not hold up.

1. Lame-duck presidents cannot get anything done.

Wartime presidents as diverse as Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush put the lie to this myth.

FDR recovered from a very difficult second term by winning a third and a fourth term and effectively presiding over the United States’ victory in World War II, which was complete five months after he died. At the time, his wartime leadership was more critical to his legacy than his New Deal policies, which were repudiated by the 1938 midterm election, where the Democrats lost badly. Reagan survived missteps such as the Iran-contra scandal and conducted crucial negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in his second term, and also handed the baton to Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988 — a continuity in leadership that helped win the Cold War. And after the “thumpin',” as George W. Bush put it, that the GOP suffered in the 2006 midterms, the president fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and pulled off a troop surge in Iraq. Although Bush’s approval ratings did not recover during his time in office, his presidency’s overall reputation has improved significantly with time.

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