There comes a moment -- it happened to George H.W.Bush, it happened to Bill Clinton -- when reporters in the mainstream media make the pivot against a president. All actions become desperate. All pronouncements become suspect.
One hundreds days into his second term, it's a little early to stick a fork in George W. Bush. But boy, has the tide turned on a president who was so recently the swaggering darling of the national news. The White House had to beg some of the networks to air last night's prime-time news conference; it was the first night of sweeps week, and NBC and Fox couldn't bear the thought that Donald Trump or "The O.C." might be bumped by a not particularly popular commander in chief with little new to say. Bush's media handlers, who value nothing more than the president's reputation for resoluteness, caved in at the last minute and moved up the presser by half an hour so that most of the prime-time entertainment could appear on schedule. Bush made a joke about it all toward the end of the press conference, but, as the New York Times notes, a lot of viewers didn't see it: NBC and CBS had already cut away.
If he reads the papers today, Bush might find himself wishing that the print reporters had left early, too. Forget the analysis pieces, almost all of which focus on the sorry shape of the president's second-term agenda; notice the hostile tone in the straight news stories today.
Under a front-page headline that reads, "Bush Cites Plan That Would Cut Social Security Benefits," the Times says Bush's press conference "represented an effort to regain control of the national dialogue at a time when Mr. Bush is struggling to push his Social Security plan ahead on Capitol Hill, his approval ratings are falling, the economy is showing signs of slowing and Democrats have become more combative."
The Washington Post leads with the headline, "Bush Social Security Plan Would Cut Future Benefits," and its main news story describes a president clamoring for relevance. The press conference "came at a time of uncertainty for a president facing sagging poll numbers, a slowing economy and general unease about his domestic agenda," the Post says, citing White House aides who say Bush is "concerned his agenda is being eclipsed by congressional bickering."
The Boston Globe says Bush met the press "amid an array of problems, including the stalled nomination of some of his judicial nominees, and of John Bolton to become US ambassador to the United Nations, ethics questions surrounding a key ally, House majority leader Tom DeLay, a sliding stock market, continuing violence in Iraq, and record energy prices."
And the Los Angeles Times headlines its coverage, "Bush Recasts Message on Social Security," then ticks off a litany of problems for which the president apparently has no plan: "The nation's economic growth has slowed. . . . The price of gasoline has soared. . . . Bush's overall popularity has sagged in public opinion polls. . . . The president acknowledged no anxiety over those trends, beyond his concern over gas prices and the economy. 'I'm an optimistic fellow,' he said."
If Bush continues to get coverage like this, he'd better be.