WASHINGTON - Every President, conventional wisdom holds, is entitled to a "honeymoon" period during which it is socially unacceptable to unsheathe one's knife, word processor or fax machine.George Bush has been enjoying the fruits of a smiling opposition and a blunt-edged press for more than two months now.
But the nation's problems in race, drugs, budgeting, and foreign policy are crushing. Bush, like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan before him, now has the power to do something; he may not have as much in the rest of his administration.
In the week leading up to the election, Washington Insiders toyed with the idea of depriving Bush of his honeymoon as a punishment for his nasty, issues-less and decidedly racist campaign. Senator Bill Bradley warned that Bush "would have a difficult time governing because of the way his campaign was run." Even Bush's Texas ally, John B. Connally, predicted that he would get "the shortest honeymoon on record."
Only it wasn't. The sacred ideal of bipartisanship, coupled with an apparently miraculous personality transformation in the President-elect, quicky overpowered the bitter aftertaste of the election.
The tide began to turn when Bush announced his selection of James A. Baker 3d as Secretary of State a day after the election. Baker has deep ties to the Eastern establishment writers of newspaper editorials and producers of news segments.
George Bush at his first press conference as president-elect seemed a different politician. The new George Bush was a gracious winner; he was genuinely funny, self-mocking, and called on many reporters by their first names. By the time he held his second news conference, on a private beach in Gulf Stream, Fla., the honeymooners were off and running.
Back in Kennebunkport, Me., things warmed up even more. Bush drove to the local store to buy provisions and then invited the press in. Andrea Mitchell of NBC observed that the new president "was having so much fun with all of this that it was hard to come up with a negative approach."
Time magazine's story was written by the man about to be drafted as Dan Quayle's press secretary. He concluded that "despite talk of scripted events and control by handlers, the public got to know Bush and liked what it saw." Newsweek, already in the access doghouse for putting Bush's face and the word "wimp" on a campaign cover, got off to slow start with a story portraying the transition as a "mess."
A crack team, however, was brought in, and the result was a Jan. 16 story comparing Bush to a most un-Bushlike character, Superman. To Newsweek, the president-elect now appeared "relaxed, confident, clearly in command and liberated," not to mention "presidential."
But before the capital floats away on a cloud of good feeling, we should ask if this honeymooning is appropiate.
The consensus in Washington rests on a number of questionable as sumptions. It assumes that Mikhail S. Gorbachev can wait almost indefinitely for a bold response to his numerous diplomatic initiatives.
It expects Japan to continue to defer to our undisciplined economic leadership and Western Europe to kowtow to our obsolete cold war priorities. These are dangerous delusions.
The next several weeks represents the only window for Bush to affect this year's budget on social issues, and achieve significant deficit reduction.
Indeed, the current consensus is a formula for almost certain disaster. Unless President Bush resists the temptation to bask in his honeymoon and starts proposing some painful and controversial solutions, this honeymoon may deserve to end in divorce on November 1992.
(Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute, a public policy research organization.)