Julian Zelizer: The Press Pack Turns on Obama

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" and is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books.]

The presidential honeymoon is like the Tooth Fairy—it doesn’t exist, even though some people insist on clinging to the concept. There is no chance that President Barack Obama will enjoy any honeymoon period. This period allegedly occurs during the first one or two months after the inauguration when the media and political opponents supposedly give the new president time to set up his presidency and allow his initiatives to pass without criticism.

While approval ratings tend to be higher in the first months of office, there never has been the kind of honeymoon period often talked about. The sociologist Steven Clayman and his colleagues have reviewed the transcripts from White House press conferences dating back to 1953 and found that the White House press corps can be extremely assertive in the first few months, particularly if the economy is struggling.

When Bill Clinton began his presidency, the press was ruthless. Just two days after Clinton was sworn into office, NBC reporter Lisa Myers commented that “from up close, the Clinton White House looked like the ‘Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players” while Fred Barnes, the conservative pundit, quipped that “he hit the ground back-pedaling.”

Obama has already come under attack. Conservative talk radio hosts jumped on remarks he made about Nancy Reagan, séances, and speaking to dead presidents. Obama called Mrs. Reagan to apologize for his remarks.

Nor does the opposition party like to sit still. When rumors surfaced in early February 1953 that the new president, Dwight Eisenhower, was considering a naval blockade of Communist China, Senator John Sparkman of Alabama, up and coming Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, insisted that the president needed to come clean, explaining if this meant “the first step toward global war.”

Sparkman said that if Eisenhower took actions without consulting Europeans, he could cause an “irreparable split with our allies….” The following week, Democrats openly criticized a statement from Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Benson, which suggested that the administration was planning to renege on its promise to provide price supports for perishable goods like meat and eggs.

After President John Kennedy delivered his State of the Union Address in January 1961, Senator Barry Goldwater called it “just a continuation of the Kennedy campaign speeches.” Though Goldwater said he admired Kennedy’s determination to fight communism, he added, “The President does not seem to understand the economy of the country. Either that, or he has been ill advised.” Representative Charles Halleck, the House Minority Leader, warned that Kennedy was pushing “spending proposals that will cost billions.”

When President George W. Bush spent his first day in office in January 2001 re-imposing restrictions on federal aid to international organizations that offered abortion counseling or assisted women in receiving abortions—the same day that he picked the anti-abortion Missouri Senator John Ashcroft to serve as Attorney General--Democrats and even some Republicans were furious. “It is ethically wrong and it is morally wrong,” said Representative Nancy Johnson, a Republican from Connecticut.

Indeed, President-Elect Obama has already come under attack. Conservative talk radio hosts jumped on remarks he made about Nancy Reagan, séances, and speaking to dead presidents. Obama decided to call Mrs. Reagan to apologize. Even among Democrats, the blogosphere has been buzzing with debates about his potential cabinet appointments, with strident differences emerging between the left and centrist Democrats over individuals such as Larry Summers for Treasury.

While a honeymoon period has never really existed, opening days are becoming even more contentious for new presidents. There are several factors at work. The 24 hour, seven days a week news cycle, accelerated by the Internet, has opened the door for instantaneous and unedited attacks. The fragmentation of news outlets in recent decades, as well as the open partisanship of on-air radio and TV personalities, has increased the number of journalists willing to attack and able to do so with relative ease.

Then there is the polarization of contemporary politics. Differences between the political parties has widened and intensified as the number of centrists in the Republican and Democratic parties has greatly diminished. Civility has often disappeared. Even though Obama was able to win votes in traditionally red states and appeal to some Republicans disaffected with the status quo, it remains unclear whether there is any true abatement of polarization.

After all, polarization stems from deep structural forces not susceptible to rhetoric, such as gerrymandering, congressional procedures, demographic change, and partisan imperatives. Assuming that polarization is alive and well, both parties will have more than enough of an incentive to attack, and to attack early.

Finally, there is the never-ending campaign. In recent years, the campaign season has become longer. Realizing the high cost of campaigning and importance of name recognition, potential candidates start earlier and earlier in the political season. Frankly, the campaign for 2012 has already begun. Politico has already reported that Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich will be speaking in Iowa at the end of the month to the Republican Governors Association. Mike Huckabee will be in Iowa to promote his new book and Governor Bobby Jindal will make his way to the caucus state to speak to a number of civic organizations.

The best bet for Obama is to accept that presidential honeymoons don’t exist. The fact he has brought in Rahm Emanuel, a tough, hard-nosed partisan to serve as his chief of staff, and that he made this appointment so quickly after the election, is a sign he is well aware of this history and ready to do battle in Washington.

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