Let’s hope America is ready for a long honeymoon

Of all the heartening developments of this political season, here’s the one that heartens me most:

About two-thirds of Americans say they believe Barack Obama can make things better, and most of those say they’ll allow him a full term to do it.

You expect a new president to ride a wave of optimism. If people didn’t think he could beat back the monsters, they wouldn’t vote for him.

As for an extended honeymoon, we’ll see. I expect that if the economy isn’t booming pretty damned quick, people will savage him. In that case, you’ll see his approval ratings below 50 percent by Easter.

Maybe not, though. Whatever his failures (I won’t even start; I only have 600 words), George W. Bush has provided a logic check for many Americans. Conservatives may still balk, but there seems to be general understanding that things like cutting taxes, increasing spending and abandoning regulation can lead to economic problems, environmental disaster and outbreaks of salmonella.

It would be insulting (to say nothing of way too optimistic) to suggest that American voters have matured, but what if?

It’s a faint hope, I realize. Jimmy Carter tried to sell us on the need for sacrifice, and we hooted him out of office.

“The whole point of Ronald Reagan’s election,” author Richard Reeves wrote at the time, “was the avoidance of pain.” Reagan himself got by on unwarranted optimism, carefully rehearsed spontaneity and the world’s oldest boyish grin, and his successors took their cues from him.

But now here’s Obama, the unlikeliest of presidents, telling us things will be hard for a long time, and we’re nodding and murmuring assent.

There was a foretaste of this, I think, in his now-famous talk on race last March. It was a gamble, speaking to Americans about a sensitive topic as though they were adults, but it paid off. Now the same approach—sensible statements from a guy who sounds smart—has won us over again.

I believe the main reason is terminal disgust with Bush: Things had gotten so bad, and been that way for so long, that Obama gets points just for acknowledging it. It may buy him time, though.

A normal presidential honeymoon, the period Congress and the voters allow before they get whiny, traditionally runs from a few months to maybe a year. (Reagan’s has lasted almost three decades, but he’s a special case.) After that, the members are thinking about midterm elections, and their dedication to country and Constitution falters.

Because of the scary economy and other disasters, experts speculate that Obama’s grace period could be shorter. Some have said it won’t see February. We’ve put a new guy in office, and we want results.

What if the polls are accurate, though?

I mean, they’re probably accurate in reflecting the way voters feel today, but what if people stick by what they say?

Typically, if things are maybe better but not yet good a year post-election, it’s trouble for the incumbent. Republicans would hammer at Obama and his policies, trying to recapture the power they threw away in 2006 and 2008. Critics would—Limbaugh and O’Reilly will, regardless—blame him for every global misstep and incident, and a certain heretofore irreducible number of voters would lockstep right along.

I have almost no faith in the collected wisdom of Man, but I’m wondering if that rule will hold true here. If W fatigue has become so sweeping and powerful that voters actually are willing to allow Obama a reasonable time to work things out, maybe we’ll eventually call the Bush presidency a success after all.