5 myths about a president's first year

By Chris Cillizza
Sunday, December 27, 2009

It has been nearly a year since Barack Obama was (sort of) sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. So what can his first year in office tell us about the next three?

Everything, most armchair historians say: The first year of a presidency is a make-or-break opportunity for an administration to assert control of Congress, achieve its legislative priorities and impress the American people with its effectiveness.

Many of Obama's supporters also buy into this idea. They can be heard comparing the president's first year in office to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and otherwise describing the year's achievements in effusive terms. ("By any measure -- domestic, legislative or foreign -- this has been a historic year for America," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said in a recent interview.) Meanwhile, the president's critics gleefully compare his job approval numbers, which have steadily dipped during this first year, to those of past presidents. They say these numbers show that the more people get to know Obama, the less they like him -- and the less they will like him in the years to come.

But a closer look at history suggests that both too much and too little can be made of a president's first year in office.

Congress is your willing handmaiden.


In the afterglow of the 2008 elections, when the country had not only overwhelmingly elected Obama president but had also handed Democrats wide majorities in the House and Senate, many in the Democratic Party had the sense that after years of frustration, a progressive agenda would finally be enacted.

Or not. While Congress has passed several of Obama's agenda items -- the expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which makes it easier for women and others to sue for wage discrimination; the economic stimulus package -- it has been more of a roadblock than a thoroughfare on other priorities, including health-care reform. Although health-care legislation will likely be signed into law, the president has acknowledged that its path through Congress has been neither as speedy nor as smooth as he had hoped.

The past two U.S. presidents also found that having their party in control of Congress didn't guarantee anything: Bill Clinton couldn't get health-care reform through a Democratic-led Congress in 1993 and George W. Bush's efforts at reforming Social Security following his 2004 reelection failed miserably, despite Republicans in charge of Congress.

Recent history provides cautionary tales for lawmakers who might be inclined to rubberstamp a newly elected president's agenda. According the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate voted in lockstep with Clinton 86.3 percent of the time in 1993 and 86.4 percent of the time in 1994 -- setting the stage for Republicans to take over Congress in that year's midterm elections. In 2004, congressional Republicans voted with Bush 81 percent of the time, then lost 30 House seats to Democrats.

Nothing gets done legislatively after the first year.


Most presidents consider their first year in office their best chance to enact their most ambitious legislative priorities. It's far enough ahead of the midterm elections to get nervous members of Congress on board and three years before the next presidential election -- so they'll have time to reposition themselves if support for their agenda goes south.

Obama clearly saw things through this first-year-or-bust prism as he simultaneously pushed health-care and carbon cap-and-trade legislation.

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