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Historians: In Speech, Obama Will Forsake ‘Gauzy and Grandiose’ for Specificity

September 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Richard Norton Smith and Michael Beschloss discuss examples of other presidents pitching themselves to voters for a second term and how President Obama will have to come across as capable of change without admitting defeat.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, joining us now from Washington are two “NewsHour” regulars. They are presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith.

I don’t think either one of you covered the presidency of Franklin — the election of Franklin Delano.

(LAUGHTER) 

JUDY WOODRUFF: Or — but, if you did, correct me.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Not alive, anyway.

(LAUGHTER) 

JUDY WOODRUFF: So we’re looking ahead to this big speech tonight. Gwen and I have been talking about this. I mean, you two studied — have studied other presidents.

How much of a burden does this president have to make this nomination, accepting the nomination speech, rise to the occasion and get him to where he needs to be?  

Richard?  

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, Scholar in Residence, George Mason University: Well, it’s a mixed bag.

Embattled presidents, beginning with Harry Truman, have seized the occasion and really changed the equation of the race with a single speech, Truman, of course, by calling the so-called do-nothing Congress back into session.

Gerald Ford pulled a rabbit out of the hat by challenging his challenger, Jimmy Carter, to televised debates, the first since 1960. And George W. Bush in 2004 came out of the Republican Convention — I mean, there are a lot of Democrats who clearly hope history is repeating itself.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It’s true, but the three presidents you mentioned all were running for reelection at the time of a great economy. Barack Obama has no such luck.

And you think of, for instance, George H.W. Bush when he ran in 1992. He gave a speech that was like many presidential reelection speeches at conventions, which was sort of general, a little bit self-congratulatory. He said later on that was a mistake, because people thought that I had run out of steam, no specific ideas for the second term. Plus, I was running against Bill Clinton, which — with his very specific plan for how to get out of the recession that existed in 1992.

So, I think, to take from that, the best advice to Barack Obama tonight is be very specific about your plan, make sure we know how you’re going to continue our lives out of the economic mess that there was in 2009.

GWEN IFILL: Michael…

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And one other futuristic element, it seems to me, that touches upon the president’s credibility, and that is, he’s got — in addition, it seems to me, he’s got to convince a critical mass of those who are watching that things will be different, not only that he has a plan, but that he will be more successful in the next four years working with Republicans, whether or not they control Congress.

It seems to me that’s a critical threshold that needs to be established.

GWEN IFILL: Richard and Michael, I want to read you some excerpts which the Obama campaign has released from the speech that he will be delivering later tonight.

Among other things, he says: “There is going to be a choice between two different paths for America. And the path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place.”

And then you were talking about specificity, Michael. And he talks about things like one million new manufacturing jobs by 2016, cutting the growth of tuition in 10 years.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Right.

GWEN IFILL: Is that what you would normally find in a nominating acceptance speech, especially for an incumbent, Michael?  

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Usually not. They’re usually sort of gauzy and grandiose sometimes, Ronald Reagan in 1984, morning in America, very unspecific.

So the problem that the president’s got tonight is that he’s got to say, yes, I’m going to do some things that are different from what I did in the first term, without making it look as if he’s saying, I made a lot of mistakes and I’m going to do it differently.

GWEN IFILL: Richard?  

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, I also think that what this week has done — it’s been fascinating to see each party lay out not only its vision, but in many ways exposed its culture.

We really are polarized. And it seems to me that this election may very well turn on how you phrase the famous Reagan question. The Republicans would very much like it to be, are you better off than you were four years ago?

And it seems to me the Democrats, led by Bill Clinton last night, would like it to be, are we better off than we are?  Depending on who wins that debate, it may very well decide who wins the election.

GWEN IFILL: We heard David say a minute ago it has to be future-oriented tonight. Is that what it has to be?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It does, because presidents usually — Disraeli talked about a leader being an exhausted volcano.

Usually, a president running for reelection looks like an exhausted without — volcano without specific ideas. That was a problem with Reagan in 1984. A wonderful campaign, won a big landslide, but for what?  And when Reagan went back to the White House, one of his aides said, we have got to do something in the second term. Here is a list. Which would you like to be your supreme priority?  

He gave him about half-a-dozen ideas. And Reagan — this is classic Reagan — checked them all and said, let’s do them all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard, you said a minute ago the president’s — one of his tasks tonight is to convince people that things will be different. But how does anybody make that promise in a way that people know that it’s true?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, in a sense, it’s — we’re asking for an act of faith, a leap of faith.

This week has been all about reestablishing, it seems to me, an atmosphere in which this president can ask credibly for a leap of faith. The president himself has told people that he really believes that, if he is reelected by whatever margin — and who knows what happens in the House and the Senate — that it would, in his words, break the fever.

Now, that may be unrealistic, but it’s a hope. And speeches like tonight’s are all about hope.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Norton Smith and Michael Beschloss, we will be coming back to you all throughout the evening.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thanks, Judy.