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Commentary: Will Obama be able to deliver on his promises?

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: Obama made promises to change America and the world
  • He says most presidents suffer a letdown in their first year
  • Kennedy, Reagan, Nixon had good beginning years, Zelizer says
  • Zelizer: Obama should take risks on policies to broaden his base of support
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By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: 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.

Historian Julian Zelizer says Obama raised expectations when he promised to "change the world."

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- 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.

John F. Kennedy was one of the exceptional presidents whose approval ratings were strong throughout his first year in office. Kennedy was successful despite a horrible fiasco with the Bay of Pigs and his inability to move key domestic initiatives, such as medical care for the aged, through a legislative system dominated by conservative southern Democrats and Republicans.

He began his presidency with a stunning inaugural address, in which he took a tough stand against communism and called on Americans to sacrifice for the good of the nation. The speech launched the president's term in the right fashion, as polls showed overwhelming support for what he said.

Kennedy retained the support of northern liberals by pushing for civil rights progress outside of the legislative process. He relied on court action and executive power to begin desegregating southern universities, enough to demonstrate a genuine commitment to racial equality.

Kennedy also made sure to please the hawkish base of the Democratic Party by proposing significant increases in defense spending on conventional weapons and by taking a tough stand against the Soviets.

Finally, Kennedy proposed a few high-profile, yet targeted, initiatives like a space program to put a man on the moon and national service through the Peace Corps that excited the younger generation of Americans who had voted for him. Kennedy's strategy was to build enough strength gradually so that he could accomplish tougher challenges as his term progressed and after he was reelected.

Richard Nixon also avoided the freshman blues, enjoying a successful first term that is often forgotten as a result of Watergate. Following his narrow victory in 1968 against Hubert Humphrey, Nixon was always careful to placate the conservative base of his party. In his first term, he played to the right by railing against hippie college students and draft-dodgers.

Reminding Republicans of his hawkish credentials, Nixon authorized aggressive bombing operations against the North Vietnamese. Yet Nixon also realized that he needed to take some political risks as he pushed for policies that undercut the political power of the left and broadened his governing coalition in preparation for 1972.

Nixon announced the policy of Vietnamization, whereby the U.S. would gradually withdraw troops from Vietnam, and said he promised to eliminate the draft. Nixon initiated negotiations with the Soviet Union over arms control. The policy of détente was appealing to middle class Americans worn down by the warfare they saw in Vietnam.

Ronald Reagan's approval ratings declined during his first year, notwithstanding a temporary boost after the assassination attempt on March, but he was able to keep the conservative coalition together. How did he do it? Reagan was very good at sticking to the big picture.

In his public addresses, he continued to outline the two major themes -- anti-communism and cutting government -- that united the factions of the conservative movement.

While Reagan displayed flexibility when backing down from certain proposals that caused too much political trouble, such as reducing Social Security benefits, he was steadfast when it came to making strong statements about the dangers of communism and the need to privilege private markets over government.

He spent much of his political capital to obtain the tax cut of 1981 which reduced overall rates and symbolized his determination to diminish the role of government in public life.

Next year will certainly be rough for President Obama and he can't count on events working in his favor. His candidacy was based on the promise of change in Washington.

As a result of the fifty-state strategy, he will face a Democratic Party that includes African-Americans urban residents, suburban homeowners living in the coastal states, Hispanic immigrants, younger voters active for the first time, as well as western and southern conservatives from states and districts that were previously Republican. He faces a complex economic crisis and the continued challenge of Iraq.

The history of presidential freshmen years though offers Obama some guidance for success: taking risks on policies that will broaden his electoral coalition, finding and sticking to key themes that will hold his coalition together, and carefully selecting a handful of issues that are dramatic enough to solidify his support without triggering a destructive backlash. If he puts these pieces together, he can start moving toward a second term.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.

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