When the honeymoon is over

An American president is turned into a myth the moment he's elected. The press sees to that. It attempts to create a kind of superman of each presidential candidate. After the election the successful larger-than-life candidate is touched with awe. He is, of course, in our system not only the political leader (head of government) but the national leader (head of state).

Americans secretly yearn for certain symbols, and if they don't have a royal family they can venerate the Flag. They bow to the aura of the president, even to such an unlikely figure as Harry Truman, not because he is a political leader but because he represents all of us, the entire nation, and we see in him an extended image - George Washington, the White House, the Lincoln bed. Put down in black and white it sounds, perhaps, a little silly. But it is emotionally real: you can't watch Washington long without knowing that a process of sanctification occurs; that's why they play ''Hail to the Chief'' when Calvin Coolidge appears.

Very well, then, the new president takes over. What is called in politics the ''honeymoon'' period immediately follows. Everybody sits back and hopes for the best. This happens although some profound and even startling changes have been occurring elsewhere in our presidential process: political parties have decayed, money-raising by single-interest groups has increased, the percentage of voters eligible to vote who actually do vote has plummetted (the figure was only 51 percent in 1980).

Never mind that. Once elected a new president is a father figure: we feel he deserves his ''honeymoon.'' This has occurred even though the two latest presidents, Messrs. Carter and Reagan, were elected after running against Washington; they took over the Establishment which they had previously criticized. (They hoped, of course, to reform it.)

President Reagan has now had his honeymoon and a new phase is here. Now comes the midterm election when a third of the Senate and all representatives are up for reelection. Certain rules normally surround this situation, too. The terms of the election are generally more parochial than in the presidential contest.

One statistic tells a lot. The ''out'' party (the one not holding the White House) has gained seats at midterm in every election since 1934. (In 1934 the Roosevelt New Deal hurricane was still blowing.) That's 48 years. Here in Washington it is generally assumed that the Democrats will make gains this November. I have heard Republicans say it would be a victory to lose only 10 seats in the House; a much more frequent estimate is 26 seats. My guess would be somewhere in that neighborhood.

If so, what? A Democratic bounce-back will give political reporters the fun of explaining it all. In the meantime another trend has developed that is curious and could be significant.

In brief, more and more Americans seem dissatisfied with their presidents; it might even be argued that they are dissatisfied with the way things are working; that they are finding fault with the system itself. For five presidential elections the percentage of voters has gone down. This is sorry news for government; it hasn't happened in other democracies. Generally in Canada, Britain, or West Germany 70 percent or more vote. It is disturbing when Americans say, ''What's the use of voting.''

Another curiosity is that since Eisenhower no president has filled out two terms. Once upon a time a second term was supposed to reward a successful president. It became such a symbol that we amended the Constitution to forbid a third term. There's been no full two-term president for a generation. Are we not picking our best men for the office? Is this just an accident or a trend?

Inevitable speculation rises whether President Reagan will seek a second term. Probably he hasn't decided himself yet. In the meantime the customary cycle continues: from an agreeable homeymoon he is plunged into the predictable midterm strife. There are three months to go, and it will intensify.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.