Since the ratification of the Twenty-Second Amendment, term limits have put predictable "sunsets" on the administrations of presidents who manage to earn a second term in office. The inadvertent consequence was the expansion of the lame-duck problem that the Twentieth Amendment, ratified just 18 years prior, had attempted to alleviate. (1) While the span of time between a new president's election and actually taking office is now just 10 weeks, long before that point the outgoing administration begins a gradual slide into political isolation. As remaining time in office recedes, the incentives for the opposition to wait out the sitting president increase and the loyalty of co-partisans in Congress diminishes. This leads to waning support for the president's policy preferences. Making matters worse, as the length of the presidential campaign increases this process seems to begin earlier every cycle--so much so that the lame-duck period is now popularly understood to begin shortly after that the midterm elections of a president's second term.
These final years of presidential administrations are commonly derided as ones in which relatively little is accomplished. In this article, I offer a counter argument: though this period is characterized by weakness, it tends to generate high levels of foreign policy activity. As the sun sets on an administration, the president faces incentives to secure their historical legacy. But mounting constraints on their preferences, meaning that their desire for meaningful action coincides with the absence of nearly all opportunities for substantial domestic accomplishments. This dearth of options pushes presidents into policy areas in which they are less constrained--most notably, foreign policy (Wildavsky 1966). I find that lame-duck periods are associated with meaningful increases in presidential diplomatic engagement, executive agreements including bilateral investment treaties, and the use of force.
These efforts, however, are typically unsuccessful, which is unsurprising because they are accompanied by neither the credible commitment of long time horizons, nor significant presidential power. However, it would be a mistake to assume that they are benignly ineffective. Rather, these diplomatic forays can, under some circumstances, lead to strategic setbacks.
Lame Ducks, Power, and Policy
Although the body of academic research on presidential foreign policy decision making in the lame-duck period is relatively slim, the few scholars who have addressed the issue consistently find it to be a period of presidential weakness. (2) Shogan (2006) examines the possibility of a "sixth-year curse," for presidential administrations placing part of the blame on weakened political coalitions and midterm electoral defeats. Combs (2001) also provides evidence for presidential weakness at the end of administrations, arguing that foreign affairs powers are usually at their weakest during the lame-duck period, both because of the sitting president's diminished political position and because foreign actors shift their focus to the incoming administration. Notably for the argument made here, Combs' point is about foreign policy efficacy rather than foreign policy activity.
It goes almost without saying that presidential weakness matters for foreign policy outcomes. It has been broadly noted that foreign policy in democracies is responsive to executive power. Koch and Sullivan (2010), for example, link conflict termination to variation in executive power in terms of popularity. Similarly, Baum and Potter (2015) find that democracies in which the executive is less constrained (i.e., stronger) by strong partisan opposition and media institutions are more likely to initiate the use of force and otherwise engage in foreign policies counter to the preferences of their citizens.
While the weakness is generally agreed upon, the extent to which it is the product of term limits or the broader political cycle is a matter of some contention. Crockett (2008), for example, examines the impact of the Twenty-Second Amendment and argues that term limits do relatively little to alter the political system--they have some impact on presidential agenda-setting efficacy in the second term but that decline is mitigated by the availability of other executive tools. Directly relating to the argument made here, however, Combs (2001) argues that the natural ebb and flow of regime cycles means that domestic agendas tend to fall by the wayside at the end of administrations while foreign policy remains relatively more intact. In Combs' view, concerns about legacy and the desire for political continuity in the next administration (the latter is a substantial component of the former) provide strong incentives to adhere traditional political constraints--active foreign policy generally does not push the envelope on such norms nearly as much as the liberal use of executive orders for domestic change.
Others have noted systematic weakness at the end of administrations or terms in broader, cross-national work. Chiozza (2015) argues that because voters discount events as they recede further into the past, audience costs are lower just after an election and higher just before an election. Others have also noted that predictable and flexible election timing has a substantial impact on democratic constraint. Williams (2013) argues that the expectation of an upcoming election constrain the foreign policy decision making of executives--a point very much in keeping with the argument that I make here. Finally, Haynes (2012) points out that if elections are the primary source of a democratic leader's accountability, a president's credibility should disappear once they are ineligible for reelection.
How does this mounting weakness, driven by increased constraint manifest itself? To answer this question it is simplest to consider what presidents do when they actually have a choice in the matter. It is widely understood that, politically speaking, presidents are best served by prioritizing their domestic agenda over foreign policy because that is where the political rewards can be found. The exception proves the rule--according to James Baker, G. H. W. Bush's Secretary of State, Bush lost the election in 1992 because he "really never had a domestic economic program ... that we could coalesce a political campaign around ... foreign policy issues never rise to the top in the polls unless it's war and peace. Unless its war and peace, they [the public] don't really pay much attention to foreign policy issues." Lawrence Eagleburger, who also served as Secretary of State under G. H. W. Bush echoed the sentiment "I think the economy was the principal question... Americans are not interested in foreign affairs unless there is a crisis."
These reflections from top political advisors mirror the scholarly consensus on the subject. Quandt (1986), for example, argues that American presidents tend to opt for policies that present significant and immediate credit claiming opportunities, and these are far more prevalent in domestic politics than in foreign affairs. The political rewards for foreign policy are low because, in the vast majority of cases, it operates well beneath the public's radar (Ostrom and Simon 1985). Typical voters do not know much about or engage with foreign policy (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1997; Holsti 1996) and do not typically vote based on foreign policy considerations. Indeed, the consensus in the literature is that, absent the major use of force public opinion is fundamentally incidental to the day-to-day foreign policy process (Holsti and Rosenau 1984; Mueller 1973; Jacobs and Shapiro 2000; Zaller 1994). The implication is that domestic policy, which is what voters are paying attention to, is much more politically rewarding.
As a direct corollary, other political actors--most notably Congress--provide less constraint on foreign policy because their own electoral incentives lead them to also prioritize domestic agendas (Potter 2013). Congress has little incentive to expend effort to influence foreign policy because congressional constituencies are local rather than national, leading members to focus disproportionately on domestic politics and the relatively few aspects of foreign policy that garner public attention or directly impact their constituency. Because public inattentiveness is generally so low, the electoral rewards for foreign policy engagement outside the realm of substantial use of force are close to nonexistent. In reaction to these incentives, members of Congress tend to invest less in foreign policy expertise in general and diplomacy in particular.
The take-away is that presidents are relatively unconstrained when it comes to foreign policy not because of the constitution or the savvy aggrandizement by past holders of the office, but rather because this is simply less valuable political real estate. The result is the widely acknowledged "two presidencies"--a relatively constrained one when it comes to domestic policy and a relatively unconstrained one when it comes to action abroad (Canes-Wrone, Howell, and Lewis 2008; Peterson 1994; Wildavsky 1966).
How then do lame-duck presidents respond? As presidents turn into the home stretch of their time in office their ambitions remain, but their opportunities for substantial accomplishments diminish. Due to declining power, their ability to achieve meaningful results in the most contested domain--domestic legislation--narrow considerably. Figure 1 demonstrates the declining success of two-term presidents since Eisenhower. The y-axis of the figure is the percentage of victories for the president's position in congressional legislation on which he has taken a clear position. (3) All of these presidents experienced a downward trend, with the most notable fall offs occurring after the sixth year in office. (4)
In response to this constraint, presidents move toward unilateral action...