Wednesday, January 14, 2009

a thoroughly modern presidential honeymoon

Obama wedding
Once upon a time, newly married western couples would get to know each other during a period known as a honeymoon, a ‘sweet month’. For most, especially those in arranged marriages, the weeks following nuptials required adjusting to a shared life together, a series of mutual compromises and sometimes unwelcome discoveries. But the inevitable personal friction could be mostly smoothed over by the sheer novelty of the experience.

Modern honeymoons are usually quite different, because many modern couples live together for months or years before becoming formally married. Nevertheless, there remain new challenges, especially the legal, financial, and emotional consequences of being bound to another person for (one then expects) the rest of one’s life. Perhaps this is why we have invented such elaborate rituals around marriage, and why so many modern honeymoons take the form of lengthy vacations to exotic places. For couples who already share a life together, novelty must be generated artificially.

The metaphorical ‘honeymoon period’ enjoyed by a new public figure, especially a new president, seems to be now undergoing a similar shift. Normally, the goodwill and cooperation a president receives for the first few months (the ‘first hundred days’ usually) follow in part from the novelty of regarding this unfamiliar person - and retinue of officials and advisors – as the nation’s leadership. We, the public and the congress, grant our new administration the benefit of the doubt, and we try to meet awkward adjustments with good humor.

Barack Obama’s incipient administration, however, has begun to look like the live-in boyfriend with whom the marriage is just a formality. Obama appointed nearly his entire cabinet weeks in advance. He arrived in DC earlier than most new presidents do (so that his daughters could begin attending school). He has already begun negotiating with congress for a new economic stimulus package. Despite the ‘one president at a time’ rhetoric, Obama’s administration has already leaked the imminent closure of Guantanamo Bay, and other foreign policy signals are emerging. Surely it means something that, two weeks before inauguration, Bill Richardson accomplished the functional equivalent of a cabinet resignation.

None of this is a mistake on Obama's fault. It would be irresponsible to sit idle while the economy teeters. The Bush administration’s discredit is so complete that Obama was sucked into the policy-making vacuum even before officially winning election. But the transition has been so competent and so thorough that we’ve now been thinking of him as the president for weeks. Do we now even get a honeymoon with Barack? Just like any modern marriage, we’ll need some artificial novelty to spice things up. There will be an enormous display for the inauguration, and reminders for weeks afterward just how special this new president happens to be. Mark your calendar: Barack Obama is taking the country to a suite in the Bahamas for a week.

(photo from

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