The Washington Ideas Forum January/February 2010

The Honeymooners

One year in, Obama’s approval ratings have slipped, and they’re likely to get worse. He’ll probably muddle through seven more years of partisan acrimony, small-bore achievements, and bitter disappointment. But this is okay. In fact, it’s the definition of success for a modern president.
Steve Brodner

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.

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David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism & media studies at Rutgers University, is the author of several books of presidential history. He writes the History Lesson column for Slate.

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