The Expectation Gap

At the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines last November, an annual ritual of backslapping and speechifying that takes on added significance in the months before the Iowa caucuses, the candidates were trying out their slogans. Hillary Clinton went with "Turn Up the Heat" (meaning, she explained, let's attack the Republicans and not each other, a vow she inevitably could not keep). Barack Obama was looking for some way to sharpen the distinction with Clinton and the other candidates. He settled on the word "change." "From my perspective, change was more than just changing parties in the White House," he reflected last week to a NEWSWEEK reporter, as he flew through the night from Omaha to Seattle for the next round of primaries. "What ailed the country went deeper than that. The line in my speech was about not just change as a slogan, but change we can believe in. At that point, we started putting it on our signs."

Many voters did believe in Obama's message, enough to propel him into a dead heat with Clinton on Super Tuesday. People of all kinds, but especially the young and upwardly mobile and African-Americans, have thronged to rallies. Others, however, have been unmoved. Some, particularly older, white, women voters—the kind who turn out in large numbers in Democratic primaries—look at Obama and see someone who appears vaguely alien. They are less interested in ringing calls for change than specific promises to provide health care or child care. Some are just plain skeptical that Obama can deliver change.

They know that presidential candidates have been promising to change the nation's capital as long as they can remember. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower swept to power promising to clean up the mess created by Harry Truman. Eight years later, in his speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination, John F. Kennedy made essentially the same promise to transform Eisenhower's Washington. "Dry rot, beginning in Washington, is seeping into every corner of America," he said. "It's time for a change." Jimmy Carter promised to sweep Washington clean after Nixon-Ford; Ronald Reagan promised to fix things after Jimmy Carter … and so it has gone in almost every election cycle before and since.

Voters are almost invariably disappointed by candidates promising to straighten out the mess in Washington. Presidents come and go; lobbyists and special-interest groups, it seems, are forever. That doesn't mean, of course, that the presidency is somehow inconsequential or that change does not happen. It's just that the change rarely has much to do with campaign promises, and everything to do with unexpected events, from Pearl Harbor to 9/11.

Presidents can bring great symbolic and tonal changes. Just as JFK brought an aura of youth and vigor to Washington, Obama, by virtue of his skin color if nothing else, will be seen around the world as something new and different from the government of George W. Bush. Occasionally, a president such as Ronald Reagan can change the governing paradigm, from liberal to conservative or back again. But the success of most presidencies depends far less on promises and rhetoric than the way presidents deal with surprises. A look at Obama's record shows that he is far more an incrementalist than a bold change agent. Hillary Clinton scoffs at Obama as weak and untried, and asserts that only she has the experience to bring about real change. Yet her record suggests that she has been rattled by change in the past, and it remains unclear whether she really learned from experience. ("She is a very practical person," says Clinton's policy director Neera Tanden. "Get done what you can. If she's completely lost a battle, then she goes at a problem a different way.")

The change Obama has in mind revolves around ending partisan deadlock. But even then, he's not talking about "some pie-in-the-sky, let's hold hands and sing Kumbaya" transformation of Washington, he says. If the Democrats fail to win a filibuster-proof majority of 60 senators, Obama hopes to peel off Republicans on issues like health care and education. This has always been Obama's approach: he is a consensus politician, not a radical.

He does not advocate sweeping policy overhauls like the Clintons' health-care effort in 1993 or President Bush's plan to privatize some of Social Security in 2005, both of which flopped. His approach to governing is closer to Bill Clinton's "Third Way" strategy. Although he was a charismatic social activist in a poor, black area of Chicago, as an Illinois state legislator in Springfield Obama knew when to cut deals with power brokers. In 2003, he passed a bill that offered health-care coverage to an additional 150,000 people—but only after an attempt to push a bigger, universal health-care proposal stalled. Obama ended up forming a commission to study the issue.

He had success pulling together Democrats and Republicans to fix the broken death-penalty system, and he has had some luck reforming campaign-finance and lobbying rules. In Illinois he worked with three lawmakers to stop politicians from using campaign funds to pay for personal expenses. But he has also run head-on into political reality. In Washington, as a junior U.S. senator, he pushed a bill to require nuclear power plants to disclose any leaks—but the bill was watered down when nuclear-industry executives, nuclear regulators and Senate Republicans objected, and it never passed.

Obama's style has always been inclusive and accommodating. Partly because he grew up as the son of a black father and a white mother in Hawaii, a place dominated by whites, Asians and Pacific Islanders, he has long since learned to adjust to different, and sometimes conflicting, points of view. Running for president of the Harvard Law Review during a period of jousting over political correctness in the early '90s, he managed to convince members of every faction that he agreed with them, according to a 2007 New York Times profile. Such crowd-pleasing can unjustifiably raise expectations. If Obama is elected president of the United States in November, he will disappoint some of his more-ecstatic believers if he doesn't achieve world peace and end hunger in the first 100 days.

Hillary Clinton's approach to change has evolved over time. As a student leader at Wellesley in the tumultuous late '60s, she was an effective compromiser, bringing faculty and antiwar protesters together. But as First Lady in the Clinton administration, she earned a reputation for being stubborn, haughty and vindictive. She brooked no dissent to her massive health-care-reform plan in 1993. In "For Love of Politics," Sally Bedell Smith's account of Bill and Hillary Clinton in the White House, the author describes a scene of health-care providers' trying to persuade her to pare down her proposed regulatory behemoth. Clinton "stiffened so noticeably," recalled Michael Bromberg, a lobbyist for private hospitals. "Her body language was angry … She really believes that if you criticize one page of a 1,364-page bill, you're the enemy." Her fellow Democrats did no better. When Congressman Jim Cooper of Tennessee joined with two old Senate hands—the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and John Breaux of Louisiana—to try to broker a less far-reaching bill, "she rejected us coldly," Cooper told NEWSWEEK. "We got no compromise. We got the hammer."

Clinton says now that she was chastened and educated by the failure of health-care reform in 1993. Working behind the scenes with Sen. Ted Kennedy and GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch, she helped pass a health-insurance plan for children in 1997. "You often learn more about a person when they don't succeed than when they do," she often tells audiences on the campaign trail. As a senator, she has reached across the aisle. She has worked with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—who as a member of the House helped lead the battle to impeach her husband during the Monica Lewinsky scandal—to establish health-care benefits for Reserve and National Guard troops who have served in Iraq. "I have even worked with Newt Gingrich," she says in a mischievous voice to campaign crowds, pausing to let the horror sink in. As audiences start to hiss, she delivers her punch line with a sly grin and so-sue-me shrug. "Like I said, there isn't anything I won't do to solve a problem."

More recently, say supporters, her drubbing in Iowa provided a glimpse of how she handles disappointment. While her ubiquitous husband was focused on blame and what went wrong, Hillary grimly concentrated on what to do next. In part by opening up a little, warming up to previously shunned reporters and nearly shedding a tear in New Hampshire, she was able to recover and stage yet another Clinton "comeback."

The catch is that voters can never be sure which Clinton they will get day to day, says Carl Bernstein, the former Washington Post reporter and author of "A Woman in Charge," a Clinton biography. "In this campaign, as in other periods in her life since college, one day you can get the demonizing, I-am-victim Hillary. The next day you get the compromising, more thoughtful Hillary," Bernstein told NEWSWEEK. Which Clinton would show up back in the White House? Some Hillary watchers think she was able to assert her independent, true self as a senator, away from her dominating husband. But the former president would likely be a real presence in the White House, dragging Hillary back into the coils of a complex and fraught relationship. Of course, it is equally hard to predict how Obama would react to the severe and often surprising challenges of the presidency. That is the problem with gauging the characters of presidential candidates: you can't really know until it's too late.