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.