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Not-so-great expectations for presidents in year 4
Obama Year Four W
In this Oct. 25, 2011 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign event in San Francisco. President Barack Obama's "we can't wait" refrain is all about projecting a sense of urgency and bold action heading into his fourth year in office. It turns out recent presidents haven't had much luck with that. - photo by Associated Press

Washington — President Barack Obama's "we can't wait" refrain is all about projecting a sense of urgency and bold action heading into his fourth year in office. It turns out other presidents haven't had much luck with that.

The fourth year is often a disappointment, particularly when a president facing re-election is trying to coax action out of a Congress in the hands of the other party. The heady optimism of earlier years gets bogged down in partisan bickering, and big initiatives give way to less ambitious steps.

Bill Clinton, chastened by huge GOP gains in the 1994 congressional elections, ended up tacking to the center in his fourth year, a remarkable transformation captured in his 1996 acknowledgement that "the era of big government is over." Clinton, helped by a solid economy, did enough to get re-elected, but it was a year of small-bore initiatives like school uniforms and neighborhood curfews.

George H.W. Bush, frustrated that he couldn't get action out of a Democratic Congress on his economic proposals, opened his fourth year in 1992 with words akin to Obama's:

"My friends: The people cannot wait," he said in his State of the Union address that January. "They need help now."

By that November, voters in a down economy were tired of waiting for help, and gave the president's job to Clinton. Bush's heralded leadership of the Desert Storm coalition that expelled Iraq's invasion forces from Kuwait in 1991 had slipped from people's attention by then.

The second President Bush, in his fourth year, had the benefits of banner economic growth and a Republican-controlled Congress. That allowed him to deliver his fourth tax cut in four years just a month before Election Day 2004.

"The law I sign this morning comes at just the right time for America," Bush said as he signed the bill in the leadoff caucus state of Iowa.

The time was just right for his re-election campaign, too, he might have added.

Bush's larger accomplishments, though, came earlier in his term: education reform, big tax relief packages and managing the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. He took the country into war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

Each president has faced his own set of challenges and advantages as his first term wound down.

Franklin Roosevelt still had steam in his fourth year, as he continued to advance portions of his New Deal, and voters re-elected him in 1936 by a lopsided margin. Lyndon Johnson, who opted not to seek re-election in 1968, was slowing down but still managed to get through fair housing legislation. Jimmy Carter's fourth year was dominated by the Iranian hostage crisis and continuing inflation, and so voters denied him a fifth. Ronald Reagan had a strong economy working for him in 1984, and was rewarded with a second term.

Overall, the track record of recent presidents in year four is somewhat depressing, says Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer.

"It is possible to govern in the fourth year, whether you're popular or unpopular" he says, "but it's obviously much more limited, usually, in terms of what you can get."

Calvin Mackenzie, a presidential historian at Colby College in Maine, says the problem for sitting presidents is bigger than simply fourth-year blues.

"The system is stacked against effective presidential leadership," says Mackenzie. "In everything that involves economic and domestic policy, the president is circumscribed by constraints everywhere he turns."

Obama doesn't need a historian to tell him that: The Republican-controlled Congress has made it clear that the president's big jobs package won't go anywhere, forcing the president to plead for bite-size pieces and look for chunks that he can put in place on his own.

"We can't wait for Congress to do its job," he said in on recent speech. "If they won't act, I will."

But in the same speech, he acknowledged a countervailing truth, saying: "The only way we can attack our economic challenges on the scale that's needed is with bold action by Congress."

Obama's tone, a year out from the 2012 elections, is sharply different than when he spoke exactly one year out from Election Day 2008.

Then, he spoke optimistically of "an opportunity to deal with those challenges that we haven't met for decades because of a political system in Washington that has failed the American people."

"I'm running because I don't want to wake up one morning four years from now and turn on one of those cable talk shows and see that Washington is stuck in the same food fight that it's been in for over a decade."

Well, it's four years later, and Obama can point to some big accomplishments, such as health care reform, and winding down the war in Iraq.

But the partisan divide in Washington is as broad as ever, hemming in the president's opportunities for further action and leaving many voters feeling disappointed.

And Mackenzie says the president must take a share of the blame for raising expectations unrealistically high.

"The problem is we do expect much — and presidents encourage us to expect much," Mackenzie says. "So we've got this awful paradox of rising expectations and diminishing ability of presidents to meet those expectations. So we're constantly disappointed in our presidents."

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