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One year after his election, what has Obama achieved?

Obama got off to a quick start. But almost one year after winning the presidency, his deeds are at risk of paling next to his aspirations.

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It is the start of Jimmy Carter’s presidency that serves as Obama’s cautionary tale. Mr. Carter, like Obama, came in with an ambitious agenda – but in Carter’s case, it fell flat but for passage of the Panama Canal Treaties. His inner circle accompanied him from Georgia and did not mesh well with the barons of Capitol Hill, even though all were Democrats. Obama, in contrast, has peppered his administration with Clinton veterans, including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

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Early failures don’t always portend a failed presidency.

“A president whom we all admire like John F. Kennedy had to get through the Bay of Pigs before he moved on to his record of accomplishment,” says Mr. Widmer of Brown University.

At least, he adds, Obama has not endured disaster, even if he has yet to pull off a signature piece of legislation in the vein of what Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson achieved early. In the first 100 days alone, Roosevelt pushed through 15 major bills, a record that matched the extraordinary circumstances. By August 1965, less than seven months after winning the presidency in his own right, Johnson had launched Medicare, Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act.

Prevention of an economic collapse may be Obama’s greatest achievement to date. But at a Democratic Party fundraiser on Oct. 20, Obama expressed chagrin at “collective amnesia on the part of some folks” over where the economy stood nine months before. “We were seeing an economic crisis unlike any that we had seen in generations,” he said. The stimulus, he added, has “made a difference in the lives of families across America.”

Some historians are dubious that Obama deserves all the kudos for saving the economy.

“If he gets credit for that, you also have to give credit to [then-Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulson and Bush for rescuing the financial system in the fall,” says Alvin Felzenberg, author of a book on presidential ratings, “The Leaders We Deserved.”

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Obama's early days in office: keep people guessing

His first 100 days in office were marked by the boldest intervention of government into the affairs of business since the Truman era.

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