The Awesome Power of a Lame-Duck President

Mayors and governors looking for action from Washington shouldn't buy into the myth that second-term presidents are powerless.
October 5, 2015
(Flickr/Rachid H)
By Mark Linton  |  Contributor
Former executive director of the White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities

Every modern-day president in his second term has been tagged as a "lame duck." Some of this is surely wishful thinking by opponents seeking to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, but much of it relies on a faulty assumption of irrelevance that has been disproven by every two-term president over the last 30 years.

Ronald Reagan pushed through bipartisan tax reform and signed a major nuclear arms reduction treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev in the final years of his presidency. Bill Clinton balanced the federal budget with surpluses multiple times. George W. Bush worked with Congress in early 2008 to pass the first of several stimulus measures to blunt some of the effects of the recession. And with less than 16 months to go, Barack Obama just inked a new pan-Asian trade agreement and secured a nuclear-weapons deal with Iran.

Ironically, the next 16 months represents one of the best times for a mayor, governor or their partners in business and philanthropy to push major priorities with the federal government. If local officials are strategic, a little opportunistic and willing to advocate for their agendas, they may be surprised at how much ground can be gained.

Why? For starters, the current administration, like every one before it, is in legacy mode, driving federal agencies to "run through the tape" and accomplish as much as possible even in the absence of new appropriations or legislation, primarily through rulemaking or novel private-public partnerships.

This has led to a flurry of substantive partnerships with local officials around the country, including efforts to improve cities' environmental and economic resilience, strengthen workforce supports and even close the digital divide. Just a few months ago, the White House and the Department of Housing and Urban Development launched a partnership with 27 cities and the private sector to expand broadband access, aiming to make some progress on behalf of the one in four families lacking affordable Internet at home. In New York City alone, that means that by teaming up with Sprint and the federal government, the city is going to extend free broadband access to 16,000 low-income residents.

In addition, at this stage federal officials are not only working to advance proactive goals but also are on the hunt for low-hanging fruit and quick wins in the form of local efforts that might flourish with a small additional push and some technical assistance from federal agencies. That means that state and local officials with ambitious proposals that may require, for instance, some degree of federal regulatory or waiver flexibility may be pleasantly surprised if they take the time to make the case with federal agencies.

Finally, staff turnover may be your best friend. Every week brings new departures of appointed leaders in cabinet agencies. The majority of the dedicated career leadership that remains does not plan on sitting around and playing solitaire until January 2017. Quite the opposite: Senior career staff in D.C. and around the country are in central decision-making roles as they run federal programs. In anticipation of a presidential transition, many want to provide continuity and momentum for their next cabinet bosses while showcasing successful partnerships around the country that should be retained.

Why don't more states and communities try to benefit from these dynamics?

It's certainly true that, between manufactured budget crises and partisan knife fights, there is plenty coming out of Washington that is worth ignoring these days. And, sadly, prospects for lasting solutions to pressing concerns such as a broken immigration system and aging infrastructure will have to wait for a Congress with more members willing to act like grown-ups and partner with the next administration.

Waiting for that day, however, shouldn't be conflated with the fantasy of an irrelevant executive branch today. Inaction now on the part of state and local officials and their partners may lead to some important missed opportunities for communities, families and businesses around the country. That would be truly lame.