Presidential honeymoons: fact or fiction?

With growing criticism around spending and healthcare reform, is President Obama’s honeymoon with American voters over? Was it even a honeymoon in the first place?

Alex Brandon/AP
President Obama speaks on healthcare at the White House Friday. Ambitious healthcare reform and expensive bailouts may be affecting the president's approval ratings.

Is the magic gone? Has dull routine set in? Is President Obama's political honeymoon over already?

That's what some of the punditocracy has been wondering in the wake of polls that showed respondents had misgivings about Mr. Obama's healthcare plans, bailout spending on auto firms, and other specific policies.

Well, maybe the president's period of voter bliss is indeed at an end. Maybe it isn't.

Maybe, just maybe, that whole "honeymoon" thing is a crock – a device the chattering class uses to frame disparate events and give them otherwise undeserved narrative coherence.

It's true that voters tend to give new presidents high job approval ratings – around 60 percent – for a period of time.

So voters generally do seem willing to cut that new guy in the Oval Office some slack.

But historically there is no clear pattern in the trends of approval ratings for a president's first four months in office, according to Gallup poll data.

President Ronald Reagan's rating started relatively low, then went up after a would-be assassin shot him. Bill Clinton's started higher, then sank immediately, as he became immersed in such controversies as whether to allow openly gay men and women to serve in the military.

In other words, it is not as if American voters typically suspend judgment on a new president's actions, seeing everything he does as suffused with a happy rose-colored glow.

Finally – and this is the kicker – voter slack does not necessarily translate into presidential success in getting an agenda through Congress. And that's what a first year in the job that used to be called Leader of the Free World is supposed to be about, isn't it?

Some presidents do well. Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Reagan all won more votes in Congress during their first year than statistical analysis would have predicted, according to political scientists Jon Bond and Richard Fleisher in their book "The President in the Legislative Arena."

But Presidents Kennedy and Nixon did not do better in their first years than they did later. And Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford? They did worse.

Some presidents "seem to have had no honeymoon at all," write Mr. Bond and Mr. Fleisher.

And Obama? One survey showed his overall job approval rating at 63 percent.

So whether it's a honeymoon or not, the voters aren't throwing crockery.

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