The idea of a limited presidency is at odds with the myth of the office. One of the most quoted presidential aphorisms is from Woodrow Wilson, who wrote that a president "is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can." Wilson wrote that line, however, before he ever set foot in the Oval Office. Once he'd actually started serving, he quickly learned about the limits of his power. "A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own . . . have rendered the great Government of the United States helpless and contemptible," he said when stymied by members of the Senate. Lyndon Johnson had a knack for minting earthy descriptions of presidential powerlessness. "The office is kinda like the little country boy found the hoochie-koochie show at the carnival," said the 36th president. "Once he'd paid his dime and got inside the tent, 'It ain't exactly as it was advertised.' "
If a president misreads his moment, it can throw his presidency off course. Franklin Roosevelt's attempt to pack the court is perhaps the most famous example of a serious political blunder. But many trip right out of the gate. Bill Clinton pushed to allow gays to serve in the military at the beginning of his first term, ending his political honeymoon about as soon as it started. In the first months of George W. Bush's presidency, either due to a lack of attention or respect, Vermont Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords abandoned the Republican Party, handing control of the Senate to the Democrats. Obama continued to back the former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle for a Cabinet post despite the controversy over his unpaid taxes. Later Obama admitted he was blind to the conflict between his promise to run a White House with no special-interest influence and the loophole he was creating for his friend Daschle.