Less than two years after taking office on a wave of hope, Barack Obama is on the verge of being slapped down by the electorate.
The president is so battered, politically speaking, that some members of his own party are sprinting away from him while Republicans whack him like a piñata.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The media assured us that the guy was headed for greatness. The nation’s journalists watched him in action, and in the last days of April 2009, delivered their collective verdict.
MSNBC’s Howard Fineman said Obama was “born” to live “calmly and confidently on a global stage with the hottest lights and biggest audience.... He doesn't seem needy, aloof or afraid. We used to call that ‘cool.’ ”
Carl Cannon, writing at Politics Daily, said this: “He is as velvety smooth as a cold glass of Guinness, this new president of ours… not to mention the good looks of a Kennedy, the even keel of a Roosevelt, the understated swagger of an Eisenhower.”
They had plenty of company. The reason for these pronouncements? On April 29 of that year, Obama served his 100th day in office.
This was, as some of those joining in the ritual acknowledged, an absurdly premature time to be grading a new president. But a look back at that heady period is illuminating, because it seems light-years from our current political universe. And it makes you wonder whether journalists are about to lurch in the opposite direction after Tuesday’s results.
All triumphant politicians get a media honeymoon (well, most of them, anyway; Bill Clinton’s ended on his first full day in office). But then comes the heavy lifting, the trench warfare, the collision between soaring rhetoric and gritty compromise. Newt Gingrich’s revolutionaries didn’t cut government down to size, though they produced a federal shutdown that boomeranged against them.
If this year’s Republicans take the House—and perhaps, though the odds seem longer, the Senate—they will have ample reason to celebrate, and the media will give them their due. But soon journalists will demand to know what the new majority has accomplished, why Washington remains deadlocked, and hey, whatever happened to those budget cuts? And the sweet taste of victory could turn sour.
• Tina Brown: Obama’s Morning-After Plan • Leslie H. Gelb: Give the People What They Want• The Most Political States At the outset, though, the promise of change—and a fresh story line—is enough. The early frenzy over the 44th president produced breathless coverage over whether he would keep his BlackBerry, what kind of dog he’d get the kids, and what stunning new outfit his wife would wear next. The new White House was more than happy to feed the media’s bottomless appetite. Although David Axelrod initially dismissed the 100-day mark as “ a Hallmark holiday,” top officials made themselves available for interviews, and on the 99th day Obama held a town-hall meeting, followed by a prime-time news conference.
Time ran a cover story. The Washington Post published a special section. Cable news went hyperactive. Obama had a 61 percent approval rating (although, as The New York Times noted, 52 percent in that poll said he was trying to take on too many issues besides the economy—an early warning sign).
Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek that Obama “has put more points on the board than any president” since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Joe Klein, in that Time cover piece, said that “the legislative achievements have been stupendous,” quoting Doris Kearns Goodwin as saying, “I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like Obama since Roosevelt.”
Arianna Huffington called Obama's first weeks “among the most eventful in history,” hailing “the intangible qualities of transformational leadership” and “his masterful use of the bully pulpit.”
A stunning three-quarters of those in a New York Times/CBS poll said they had no opinion of soon-to-be-House Speaker Boehner, which to my mind amounts to a journalistic failure.
Some conservative commentators held their fire, but not everyone on the right was buying the elixir. On Fox News, Charles Krauthammer said the new president was pursuing “as radical an agenda” as FDR and wanted “to establish more a social democratic America.”
Even among those dishing out the praise, there was usually what we in the business call the “to-be-sure” paragraph, such as to be sure, the world could fall apart and Obama’s programs could fail, but so far he is off to a strong start.
Let’s face it: Journalists can be like teenage girls when it comes to swooning over a new heartthrob and then, just as quickly, falling out of love. Jerry Ford was once hailed for making his own English muffins after the long national nightmare of Richard Nixon ended.
Jimmy Carter was initially viewed as charming when he held a fireside chat in a wool cardigan. (“Only two weeks into his presidency, Jimmy Carter has already proved himself a master of the symbolic act,” Time gushed.) George W. Bush was riding high in the media after the fall of Baghdad, when he landed on that carrier in a flight suit. (“He won the war. He was an effective commander,” Chris Matthews declared. “We're proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical, who's not a complicated guy.”) All three presidents wound up plummeting in public esteem.
And that’s precisely the point. The pundits, if you discount the walk-on-water tone, weren’t exactly wrong about Obama; it’s just that his most significant political tests hadn’t yet taken place. The stimulus bill, which by ordinary scorekeeping was a big legislative win, came to be seen as a major albatross. And when you work in the White House, stuff happens, like a Gulf oil spill that, fairly or unfairly, tarred his presidency.
There’s a lesson here for the coming Republican era on the Hill. The media haven’t told us much about GOP power brokers until now because the minority always gets short shrift. Most Americans know little about John Boehner, except for his perpetual tan. A stunning three-quarters of those in a New York Times/CBS poll said they had no opinion of the soon-to-be-House Speaker, which to my mind amounts to a journalistic failure.
But with Boehner on the verge of becoming House Speaker, news organizations are trying to rectify that. A Times reporter went to his hometown of Reading, Ohio, describing it as having forged his political viewpoints (“ shaped by his working-class Roman Catholic family”); “formed his passions (golf, football, more golf)” and “kindled his love of sharp clothes.” The Washington Post found that when Boehner was booted from the GOP leadership in 1998, he “ kept a brave face over glasses of red wine” with friends at a Washington steakhouse, until another congressman toasted him and “Boehner, who is prone to tears (it drives him crazy, but he can't help it), lost it.” Now he’s a human being, not just a politician shouting “Hell, no!”
The temptation, once the polls close Tuesday night, will be to portray Republicans as tenacious leaders who overcame incredible odds and are poised to rescue the country from runaway government. Well, maybe. Time will tell. We shall see. And by the way: Barack Obama, the day after the midterms, still gets an incomplete grade. The president who soared after 100 days and stumbled after 21 months may look very different by 2012.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources," Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.