History lesson for Obama: Not-so-great expectations for presidents in year 4 at White House

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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 acknowledgment 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 largely characterized by 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....

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