The promise and selling point of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign—breaking with the past, delivering something new—was the oldest promise in American politics. Since European settlers crossed the Atlantic imagining (mistakenly) a “new world” without history, Americans have rewarded talk of new beginnings. The early colonists sought to create a society de novo in ways that Europe—with its religious wars, social stratification, and finitude of land—made impossible. To the Revolutionary generation, the acts of declaring independence and drafting a constitution seemed to ratify this mythology. And in every era since, Americans have fallen, starry-eyed, for leaders who speak of a future unencumbered by history’s weight. Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, FDR’s New Deal, JFK’s New Frontier, even George H. W. Bush’s New World Order—all began with the promise of the new.
Of course, after the flush of a campaign, both voters and presidents have invariably discovered that history imposes constraints. After the Civil War, a cohort of young intellectuals invested hope in Ulysses S. Grant, only to see rampant corruption persist and the dream of reconstructing the South dissolve. After World War I, the crash-and-burn of Wilson’s noble quest for “peace without victory” soured Americans on an energetic executive for a decade. Bill Clinton’s New Covenant, a dead-on-arrival slogan, presaged the letdown that came as his followers realized that liberalism’s revival would require more than a few token compromises.
Obama in 2008 was just the latest aspirant to talk of beginning anew. He bested Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in part by saddling her with the record of not one but two past presidents: the residual regret over her husband’s supposedly small-bore and blandly centrist Third Way agenda, and the collective buyers’ remorse over the Iraq War. In contrast to the dreaded “incrementalism” of the Clintons, Obama’s candidacy tantalized voters with a chance for what he called “transformational” or “fundamental” change.
One year later, transformation looks like a fleeting dream. No one knows whether Obama can deliver massive change on the scale of Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, or LBJ. But right now, the opportunity that loomed last fall seems to have passed. Conservatives—uncharacteristically mute last winter—have regained their voice, nearly derailing Obama’s health-care plan and keeping the administration on defense in the daily media wars. Meanwhile, liberals and leftists, who largely muffled their doubts when Obama had a presidency to win, are suddenly seething over his moderation and compromises—keeping suspected terrorists jailed indefinitely, countenancing his treasury secretary’s coziness with financial CEOs, letting center-right senators weaken his health-care plan. Washington pundits, for their part, intoned throughout 2009 that in taking on health care, energy, and financial reform in his first year, the president was attempting “too much.”
Yet the now-prevalent pessimism about Obama’s presidency is surely unwarranted. True, we can no longer expect Obama to be the agent of a post-partisan politics, or an uncorrupted anti-politician incapable of spin or triangulation, or America’s most civil-libertarian president, or a socialist. But in the modern age, presidents are never able to meet such expectations. Our hunger for presidential intervention, leadership, and salvation now exceeds any individual’s capacities. So the eclipse of these campaign-trail fantasies about Obama’s presidency hardly signals its death. On the contrary, it marks the true beginning.
“If there is anything that history has taught us,” John F. Kennedy said on the campaign trail in 1960, “it is that the great accomplishments of Woodrow Wilson and of Franklin Roosevelt were made in the early days, months, and years of their administrations. That was the time for maximum action.” But Kennedy was wrong—unless you choose to focus exclusively on the word years instead of days and months. As rich in opportunity as presidential honeymoons can be—and the best executives have used them to get important things done—a president’s real work doesn’t occur when he has what Obama calls the righteous wind at his back. It occurs when he has to soldier on into a fight, despite blustery headwinds.
Like the unit of 100 days, the benchmark of a president’s first year matters a lot to journalists but relatively little to historians. The 100-days concept itself, which originated with Roosevelt’s flurry of activity in early 1933, soon devolved into a transparent public-relations gimmick, as media-age presidents sweated over how to boost their grades on what soon came to be recognized as the president’s initial report card. Similarly, the now-ritualized year-one evaluation, though harmless as an exercise in journalistic stock-taking, offers a weak basis for predicting future performance. Indeed, none of the three presidents Obama has taken as his role models—Lincoln, FDR, and Kennedy—enjoyed a first year that foretold the direction of his presidency. Transformation doesn’t happen overnight.
Abraham Lincoln is Obama’s favorite president and his aspirational model. In 2007, the senator from Illinois launched his bid for the Oval Office in Lincoln’s shadow, on the steps of the Springfield Old State Capitol. With his message of national conciliation, Obama often echoed Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Even when he attacked his rivals, he suggested that he was merely combating their retrogressive politics, while he was summoning the better angels of our nature. At times, the Lincoln comparisons taxed credulity: Obama’s devotees even pointed to Lincoln’s one-term service in Congress—and his subsequent rise to become America’s greatest president—to answer the charge that Obama hadn’t accomplished enough in his career to earn him the White House. It was no surprise when, in January 2009, the incoming president took his inaugural oath on the Bible Lincoln had used, and presided over festivities branded as “A New Birth of Freedom.”
Yet as Obama surely knows, Lincoln—a transformative president if there ever was one—started his administration on a shaky note. His inaugural address fumblingly extended an olive branch to the seceding states of the South, promising (to no avail) that he would enforce the fugitive-slave law and uphold slavery in the states where it was legal. The Confederate attack on Fort Sumter forced Lincoln to change course. But on the crucial matter of slavery, the president—who had never considered himself an abolitionist—remained fairly conservative. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it,” he wrote to Horace Greeley in 1862, “and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” Few foresaw that his presidency would end with the abolition of slavery and a redefinition of freedom, union, and equality.
Lincoln also needed time to gain his footing as commander in chief. Unsure of himself in military affairs, he was at the mercy of his generals, including the aging and detached Winfield Scott. Dispiriting defeats—notably at the First Battle of Bull Run, in July 1861—emboldened the South. Even after Lincoln mustered the wisdom to replace Scott, George B. McClellan, his new top commander, frustrated the president by declining to advance against Confederate forces. As for his domestic agenda, Lincoln, like most 19th-century presidents, followed Congress’s lead. But even there, despite a Republican leadership eager to exploit the sudden absence of Southerners, major laws—the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railway Act, and the Morrill Land Grant Act—didn’t get the president’s signature until 1862.
No one could say that Franklin Roosevelt began his first year in office hesitantly. His first 100 days were indeed a whirlwind of legislative and executive feats. But FDR geared his first-year efforts almost entirely toward recovery—a necessary but hardly transformative goal.
Certain measures—like solving the banking crisis, which had reached catastrophic proportions on the eve of his inauguration—made a palpable difference. But the core elements of FDR’s “First New Deal” turned out to be, on the whole, ineffectual or unconstitutional—or both. The National Recovery Administration, the centerpiece of it all, which relied on industry leaders to agree to production codes, was flawed in both conception and execution, and it failed miserably. When the Supreme Court unanimously ruled it unconstitutional, Roosevelt’s aide Robert Jackson called the decision a blessing in disguise, since it spared the president from having to watch Congress decline to renew the act. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, which regulated farm production through central planning, was also struck down. And then there was Roosevelt’s Economy Act, a misguided effort in budget balancing taken up before Washington discovered the wisdom of deficit spending.
Most of the New Deal’s lasting elements didn’t come until 1935. Only after taking a beating on the airwaves from demagogic populists like Senator Huey Long of Louisiana and the radio priest Charles Coughlin did FDR sign on to the Social Security Act, which created unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, and a safety net for the disabled. And not until his second term did his administration embrace a Keynesian strategy of aggressive spending to lift the economy out of crisis. If Roosevelt’s first year was historic for its activist spirit and purposeful intervention, its economic philosophy left little mark.
While Obama styled himself Lincolnian in his rhetoric of reconciliation, and Rooseveltian in his steadfastness in the face of economic distress, he just as often summoned the Kennedy mystique, presenting himself as the telegenic, inspirational torchbearer of an ascendant generation. Obama suggested that he wanted to “move the country in a fundamentally different direction,” as he believed Kennedy had. Just as Kennedy’s election shattered the anti-Catholic taboo in presidential politics, Obama’s promised to topple an age-old wall of racial prejudice. The Baby Boomers who flocked to Obama’s candidacy said he brought back memories of JFK. The claim was echoed most tellingly by the fallen president’s own brother, who anointed Obama as JFK’s successor after perceiving a slight to the family name in Hillary Clinton’s assertion that the skill of Lyndon Johnson—she didn’t mention Jack—had been instrumental in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In fact, on civil rights, as in other areas, Kennedy’s first-year performance dismayed his enthusiasts. As a candidate, he had vowed to desegregate federal housing with “a stroke of the presidential pen.” But once in office, he demurred; fearful of alienating powerful southern Democrats whose support he needed on other issues, he focused instead on foreign-policy problems. Not until he’d cleared the 1962 midterm elections did Kennedy issue the housing proclamation. Caution likewise informed his response to the Freedom Riders—the activists who rode buses across the South starting in May 1961 to force the government to uphold the Supreme Court’s desegregation of interstate travel. When white southerners brutally beat the activists, Kennedy and his aides, unprepared, at first tried to stop the rides, sending in federal marshals only when it seemed that the violence might turn deadly.
In foreign policy, too, the biggest developments of JFK’s debut year yielded little positive transformation. The Bay of Pigs invasion, an ill-conceived CIA scheme hatched under Dwight Eisenhower, redounded to Kennedy’s benefit only because he had the sense not to duck responsibility. At his June summit in Vienna with Nikita Khrushchev, the new president felt he was verbally pummeled by the Soviet premier, in what Kennedy called the “roughest thing in my life.” Kennedy’s tepid response may have encouraged Khrushchev to erect the Berlin Wall that fall. When that happened, too, JFK was slow to act (Kennedy: You can’t stop tanks with words, read one West Berliner’s protest sign), and even his decision to send retired General Lucius Clay and Vice President Johnson to West Berlin to boost morale did nothing to deter the Soviets. At the end of 1961, Kennedy’s aide Ted Sorensen mentioned that two reporters were considering writing books about the year gone by. Kennedy was mystified: “Who would want to read a book on disasters?”
The presidency that Obama’s resembles most so far isn’t any of these but, ironically, that of Bill Clinton—ironic because Obama, speaking in January 2008 about what makes a good president, implicitly denigrated Clinton even as he praised Ronald Reagan for having “changed the trajectory of America” and “put us on a fundamentally different path.” Obama, many speculated at the time, may have been playing head games with his peevish predecessor, goading him into another outburst that would thrill the press pack. Even so, it was a strange reading of history. Reagan’s election, after all, did not initiate but culminated a long conservative effort to gain control of the levers of power; his decisions as president moved his party to the right, but they also introduced fissures and frustrations into the conservative alliance. Clinton’s tenure, in contrast, began a new era for the Democrats, and after his eight years, virtually all of the party’s leading lights embraced what had been controversial stands in 1992: an internationalist foreign policy, a growth-centered economics, and a willingness to link social policies to family values.
The point would be trivial had Obama not reached for Clinton’s 1992 playbook during the fall 2008 campaign. Obama’s battle with John McCain, which centered on the hard-pressed middle class, showed that Obama represented less a repudiation of Clinton (as the primaries had suggested) than a continuation. His rhetoric wafted to earth to focus on everyday economic concerns. His convention speech opened, after the preliminaries, not with soaring visions of post-partisan unity but with issue-based, it’s-the-economy-stupid plain language:
Tonight, more Americans are out of work and more are working harder for less. More of you have lost your homes and even more are watching your home values plummet. More of you have cars you can’t afford to drive, credit-card bills you can’t afford to pay, and tuition that’s beyond your reach.
Obama discovered this idiom just in time for the financial chaos and the debates with McCain.
Obama’s successes and struggles in his first year bear striking resemblances to Clinton’s. Both men were elected with similar mandates—Clinton won 370 electoral votes, Obama 365—and majorities in both houses of Congress. Both opened their first years well by signing a few queued-up executive orders and bills—including the Family and Medical Leave Act, for Clinton, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, for Obama. And both made economic revival their first priority. Both men also entered office facing tooth-and-nail resistance from a right wing that had just lost the presidency. The right imagined Clinton, as it does Obama, to be far more radical than he really was, and it thus tried to delegitimize him. A short line connects the “Who shot Vince Foster?” conspiracy theories to those surrounding Obama’s citizenship.
Republicans also forced Clinton to pass his first economic plan without their support, much as they tried to scuttle Obama’s stimulus package. And despite losing the legislative battle, they succeeded in shaping public perception of these economic bills after their passage. Clinton’s 1993 budget—which not only set the government on course for a record surplus, but also cut taxes for millions while raising them on very few—was nonetheless portrayed, and viewed by most Americans, as a tax hike. In parallel fashion, economic evidence suggests that Obama’s spring stimulus bill has already done some appreciable good. But according to an August Gallup poll, Americans consider it too big and are uncertain about its benefits. And while Obama seems likely, as of this writing, to emerge from his first health-care fight with more to show for it than Clinton did from his, the final bill probably won’t be more than an incremental step or two forward—less like Medicare than like the 1996 Kennedy-Kassebaum Act, a now-forgotten consolation prize that Clinton garnered later in his presidency.
The reassertion of political limits and the deflation of campaign-season euphoria make it unlikely that Obama’s presidency will be “transformational” in the sense that he spoke of on the campaign trail—Lincolnian in its boldness, Rooseveltian in its activism, or Kennedyesque in its uplift. More likely, it will resemble Clinton’s presidency, with eight years of muddling through, frequent bouts of sharp partisan opposition, fluctuating poll ratings, and dashed hopes.
This should be no cause for distress. Obama could do worse than to emulate Clinton, who, at the end of the day, left the country better off than when he took office. Clinton’s record remains undervalued, partly because a misleading narrative took hold (that his impeachment cost him the chance to do more), and partly because many of his gains were achieved not through the big-ticket stand-alone legislation that journalists recite in their year-end summaries but through less visible allocations within the interstices of the federal budget. No single law or presidential order gave us the longest economic expansion in history, the lowest unemployment rates in three decades, or the declines in poverty, crime, and teen pregnancy. Nor does Clinton deserve sole credit for these feats. But all were accomplished during his eight years.
Twenty-five years ago, the political scientist Theodore Lowi published a book called The Personal President. It argued that the increasingly large responsibilities placed on the president since Franklin Roosevelt’s time—of regulation, social provision, and economic management, to say nothing of the leadership of the free world—have exploded into impossible expectations. Every postwar chief executive, Lowi noted—and the observation still holds—has begun his presidency with high approval ratings and left office with the public chastened of its early optimism, if not disillusioned altogether. (The president who has exited the White House with the highest approval ratings, post-FDR, is Clinton.)
It is easy to propose that we lower our expectations for our new presidents—even, or perhaps especially, for presidents who come bearing lofty promises of transformation. But we can’t correct the problem, Lowi’s diagnosis suggested, simply by resolving to demand less from our chief executives or by vowing to learn from the past. The problem is rooted in nothing less than the presidency’s assumption of immense powers, and of a central role in our imagination. Candidates have no better path to victory than by inspiring us with dreams of a new political era, and presidents have no choice but to attempt “too much.” In doing so, however, they can only disappoint us.