Man on the honeymoon
The mess at home and abroad could be a boon to Obama's platform push during his first 100 days as President.
When Barack Obama places his hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible and solemnly swears to “preserve, protect and defend” on Tuesday 20, he might as well be saying “I do” to the country. Sure, Michelle will be First Lady, but the inaugural essentially weds Obama to America. And as marital tradition dictates, a honeymoon shall follow.
The “presidential honeymoon,” a term coined during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s prolific first term, is thought of as the first 100 days following a President’s inauguration, when, in the afterglow of victory, he has a window of opportunity to begin pushing the policy initiatives central to his campaign platform to a more-deferential-than-usual Congress. Presidential honeymoons are also typically marked by high approval ratings and more positive than critical media coverage.
But in a country struggling through a major recession and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will President Obama have the latitude to make good on his promise of change during his first 100 days? How much can he really get done in his initial legislative drive?
A helluva lot, actually. In fact, more than most Presidents, forecasts Loyola University poli-sci prof John Frendreis, who authored “Predicting Legislative Output in the First One-Hundred Days, 1897–1995,” a study of presidential honeymoons from McKinley through Clinton. Frendreis says Obama is entering office under a perfect storm of conditions for the new President to make big, nation-shaping legislative strokes such as the stimulus package, energy independence and health-care reform.
“We’re at war and we’re in a substantial economic crisis,” Frendreis says, “and those things have a big influence on making Congress act on proposals. So Obama’s going to succeed because of, not in spite of, these challenges. Even better for Obama, there’s a fairly large, though not overwhelming, Democratic majority in Congress. There’s going to be tremendous pressure on Congress not to block his actions.”
Obama’s YouTube revival of FDR’s fireside chats indicates he’s looking to Roosevelt—who stormed into office in 1933 and began towing the country out of the Great Depression with the New Deal—as a model for taking action on the economy in his first 100 days.
But Frendreis warns Obama’s honeymoon could end suddenly, as the public’s overinflated bubble of expectations finally bursts. A CNN poll recently found the Obama transition had an 82 percent approval rating, much higher than Clinton, the Bushes or Reagan.
“There’s really nowhere to go but down,” Frendreis says. “You can expect some groups that have read into Obama all their hopes and dreams—African-Americans and Latinos, especially—to start becoming disenchanted with him and start criticizing him when he doesn’t meet all their expectations.”
Aside from waning popularity, a major mistake could also prematurely terminate Obama’s honeymoon. Frendreis points to JFK—someone to whom Obama is so often compared—whose honeymoon infamously derailed with the fumbling of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. “[JFK] was very photogenic and seemed to get the country moving again. He had a very strong inaugural address [“Ask not…”]. But then the Bay of Pigs quickly highlighted that he was relatively inexperienced,” Frendreis says.
Like FDR’s Depression or even Bush’s September 11, Obama’s initial handling of the recession will likely inspire Americans to rally around the President. “If you’re going to have an economic challenge as a President, the first 100 days is the perfect time,” Frendreis notes. “Four years from now, when he’s running for re-election, he’s going to be in a position to do a then-and-now comparison. And it’s certainly going to look good.”