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Julian Zelizer: Will Obama be able to deliver on his promises?

Roundup: Historians' Take




[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" and is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books.]

Many Americans are expecting big things from President Barack Obama.

The president-elect ran as the candidate of change, promising to transform the status quo in Washington and to empower citizens to take back their government.

During his speeches in the final week of the campaign, Obama said to his supporters that together, "we will change this country. We will change the world."

Those are some pretty big promises. Unfortunately for Obama, most presidents since WWII have suffered from the freshmen blues in their first year in the White House.

Expectations are usually high and the ability of a president to deliver much of what he promised on the campaign trail is rather low. Without a national crisis like 9/11, presidents have struggled in their first year with a general decline in approval ratings.

The reasons are not difficult to understand. International and domestic crises force the White House to focus on unexpected issues, many of which are not in their best political interest. The bitter partisan and intra-party tensions that had caused gridlock for the previous administration remain. Budgetary limits constrain how much tax-cutting or spending increases can take place.

When a president takes office with expectations as high as those for Obama, the chances for avoiding a post-election letdown are virtually nil.

Under these conditions, the challenge for the new president is to somehow keep the factions of his winning coalition in the tent even as he can't accomplish much of what he promised to do.

While some presidents, such as Harry Truman or Jimmy Carter, never really recovered from the post-election letdown and watched as their coalitions crumbled, other presidents have figured out ways to retain the loyalty of their supporters....
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