The Contemporary Presidency: The Return of the Honeymoon: Television News Coverage of New Presidents, 1981-2009

By Farnsworth, Stephen J.; Lichter, S. Robert | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2011 | Go to article overview

The Contemporary Presidency: The Return of the Honeymoon: Television News Coverage of New Presidents, 1981-2009


Farnsworth, Stephen J., Lichter, S. Robert, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Barack Obama's 2008 election was an emotional moment for many Americans, generating joyful rallies in many U.S. cities. The enthusiastic election night response in 2008 had more in common with the vigorous and highly partisan nineteenth-century political victory rallies than with most presidential elections of the twentieth century, though subsequent scholarly analysis of voting behavior suggests that Obama's election may be less transformational than some thought at the time (cf. Denton 2009; Edge 2010; Smith and King 2009). Candidate Obama's change agenda triggered highly optimistic impressions--what some might consider unrealistic visions--among many citizens about what the youthful president could accomplish once he replaced George W. Bush (Campbell 2009; Conley 2009; Ceaser, Busch, Pitney 2009; Harris and Martin 2009; Pew 2008c). Those expansive early public perceptions gave way, as they often do, to increased public negativity about a new president's policies after he started to govern (Balz and Cohen 2010).

One key area where the Obama's 2008 election campaign was notably different from its predecessors (and from the campaign of his 2008 rival Sen. John McCain), was in the aggressive courting of reporters and extensive use of paid media. Partly as a result of these factors, Obama enjoyed a huge tonal advantage in stories about the campaign in traditional media, with news reports far more positive than reports on the McCain campaign or those of other Democratic and Republican nominees during the past several presidential election cycles (Farnsworth and Lichter 2011; Owen 2009). The less positive campaign coverage other successful presidential candidates received, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, translated into less-than-positive first-year news reports once they took office (cf. Farnsworth and Lichter 2004, 2006).

This paper uses content analysis of network television evening news reports from Obama's first year to determine whether the relatively positive treatment Obama received during the campaign carried over to his first year in office. Did this unusually effective media campaigner continue to receive highly positive news reports once campaigning gave way to governing? Did Obama's first months in office suggest a revival of the traditional presidential "honeymoon" of favorable media treatment that presidents once enjoyed but had lost during the recent decades of increased media negativity (cf. Cohen 2008; Farnsworth and Lichter 2004, 2006; Patterson 1994)?

To answer these questions, content analysis data on Obama's first year in office will be assessed in light of comparable analyses of the first years of the presidencies of Ronald Reagan in 1981, Clinton in 1993, and Bush in 2001. These data, covering the four most recent partisan transfers of control of the White House, allow us to examine in a quantitative fashion claims by the president's critics that the mainstream media were treating Obama much more positively than previous presidents (cf. Kurtz 2010; Rutenberg 2009). Our comparison of presidential coverage with coverage of other White House actors also allows us to chart trends in "beat sweetening," a process where reporters are thought to curry favor with new administration officials and potential sources with unusually positive coverage (Calderone 2009; Noah 2009; Silverstein 2010).

Permanent Campaigns, Going Public, and Honeymoons

Presidential administrations generally continue to campaign after moving into the White House, seeking to sell the president as the candidate had been sold previously (Farnsworth 2009; Tulis 1987). This practice of governing through a "permanent campaign" offers mixed results. While the mass media convey immense communication advantages to the White House, presidents do not always market their policies or themselves effectively (Brody 1991; Cook 2002; Entman 2004; Farnsworth and Lichter 2006; Gregg 2004; Han 2001; Hertsgaard 1989; Kernell 2007; Kumar 2007; Tulis 1987). …

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