A Better Way to Say 'Lame Duck'
The phrase, borrowed from the 19th century, is a terrible term. The Internet furnishes a replacement that, however obscene, is clearly superior.
Every president must contend with the fundamental mortality of his political life. It's not just that presidencies have built-in expiration dates; it's that the ability to steer the course of the nation disappears long before the day his successor takes office. President Obama, for his part, is easing into the golden years of his administration with the help of the typical tonics: time with his family. A more relaxed fit in his dad jeans. Golf.
The phrase "lame duck"—first used, as a presidential epithet, to describe Calvin Coolidge
—is said to have originated with Lincoln
, and with his declaration that "[a] senator or representative out of business is a sort of lame duck. He has to be provided for."
But "Lame duck," with apologies to our sixteenth president, is a terrible term. It is jargon-y. It is partisan. It is poorly descriptive. It is offensive to both humans and, we can reasonably assume, the entire waterfowl community.
More than anything, though, "lame duck" is often simply inaccurate: The golden years of a presidency can be, for better or for worse, intensely productive ones—not just despite a president's ability to extricate himself from standard political pageantries, but because of it. As my colleague David Graham noted
, watching this year's State of the Union, "None of the policy goals Obama enunciated would suggest a president with narrowing horizons." And, indeed, Obama, in the speech, displayed an easy confidence you could fairly describe as swagger
. ("I have no more campaigns to run," the president noted, perhaps by way of explanation. When the GOPers in the House applauded this fact, he retorted, without missing a beat: "I know, because I won both of them.")
This was, of course, posturing. It was partisanship. It wasn't, however, lame-duckery. The problems Obama will inevitably face executing his vision for the country have less to do with the time left in his presidency than they have to do with its politics—with the fact that he will need to execute it with the help of a Republican Congress. If it doesn't look like a lame duck or quack like a lame duck ... is it still a lame duck?
Probably not. Which is why observers of Obama have recently embraced another, better—if more profane—description of the presidential twilight: the "Zero Fucks" phase. As in, the president has zero fucks
left to give. Really just none
. "No fucks here, folks
." Having dispensed with the permanent campaign
, our 44th president can sit back and, if not relax, at least craft his legacy in a manner that is (relatively) free of political concern.
As one writer summed it up
: "Barack Obama Is Out Of Fucks."
What a weird and honest and superior way to describe the twilight phase of a presidency: a way that captures the liberation, as well as the imminent expiration, of an administration's final years. The "Zero Fucks" frame is fitting, if you can get beyond the profanity, not just because it's more accurate than the Lincolnian waterfowl metaphor, but also because it's borrowed from the vernacular of the Internet.
"A fuck"—like its sister term, "a damn"—has long functioned as a noun in the figurative sense: You can "not give" one, or "not give a flying" one, etc., etc. The full nounification, however, is a fairly recent phenomenon, the stuff of message boards and 4chan and reddit: Remember the meme "not a single fuck was given that day
"? It's been languishing a bit since its peak in 2011, but it has still infiltrated Internet vernacular through predictable tweaks: one can give "zero fucks"; one can count one's fucks and arrive at zero
; one can type a telling "___" after the phrase "this is how many fucks I give."
And on and on. As one description of the term's Latin predecessor, futuō
, points out
, the word "is richly attested and useful." And its absorption into the political discourse speaks to the increasingly intense—and also diffuse—connection between Internet culture and everything else, politics very much included. Obama's 2015 State of the Union was the first to use the terms "Instagram," "eBay," and "superrich"
; it was hyped on YouTube and Twitter; its text was posted to Medium; and it was streamed online, on Whitehouse.gov and other sites.
It's fitting that the era the speech was ushering in—the end of the 44th president's administration—take its name from the 21st century, rather than the 19th. It's fitting as well that "lame duck," that negative term, should have a slightly more swaggery counterpart. Caring requires investment. And a "no fucks" phase is a fitting way to recognize that ceasing to care confers its own sort of freedom.