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Can a State of the Union address ease tensions in Washington?

How will President Trump's 2019 State of the Union address fit into American history? And can the president’s annual speech change the dynamics on Capitol Hill? Presidential historian Michael Beschloss joins Judy Woodruff to put this moment of political division in context.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's take a step back now and put this moment and tonight's address in context with presidential historian and "NewsHour" regular Michael Beschloss.

    Michael Beschloss, wonderful to see you.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Wonderful to see you, always.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you for being here.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you have looked at how presidents have handled times of stress, times when they are facing opposition, whether new or longstanding.

    That seems to be certainly what President Trump is facing tonight. How have other presidents handled it?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Well, oftentimes, they have made a pivot.

    Bill Clinton, for instance, in 1996 was about to run for reelection, and two years earlier, he had lost Congress to the Republicans first time in 40 years. That was a very big event.

    So he said, we remember it now, the era of big government is over. That worked for him, because people knew that for the years since the election, he had been moving steadily to the right or at least to the center. So, when he said those words, it had some meaning, helped to position him to run successfully for reelection.

    And, also, I was so interested that Senator Perdue was talking about Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton. That State of the Union set that up for Clinton and Gingrich by the summer of 1996 to do welfare reform together, to balance the budget. It really changed the political atmosphere.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, is there a precedent, Michael Beschloss, for presidents who have been at loggerheads with the Congress turning the corner and setting the stage for there to be real — an ability to work together?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Yes, absolutely.

    In 1947, Harry Truman went to give the State of the Union after he lost Congress to the Republicans for the first time in 16 years. He knew that there was a big necessity for him to make deals with the Republicans, to prepare the nation to fight the Cold War, and to try to get some of the domestic laws that he wanted. He failed at the latter.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you sense, again, from — you have studied history, have studied so many presidents — that there is a willingness, a will on the part of these two parties that have been fighting each other for week after week, day after day, to come together?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    I think they know that an awful lot of Americans would like to see that.

    That surely shows up in the polls. But there has not been much sign of it during the last month, and we will see if this speech changes the atmosphere. I think rarely in history does that happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's what I want to ask you about, too.

    How much difference can one speech, one — granted, this is a big deal, it's the State of the Union, it's — there's a whole lot of tradition wrapped around this.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Can one address make a difference?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    If people have the feeling that lurking within Donald Trump has been this deep desire to make deals with the other side that has not expressed itself — and he talked about it a lot during the campaign, 2016.

    A lot of people that voted for Trump did so because he said: I know Chuck Schumer. I can make deals with him.

    And they feel in many cases that it hasn't been expressed. If we begin to see signs of that Donald Trump in the wake of this speech, things could begin to change. I'm not predicting that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are you — why not?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Because this speech was preceded by an enormous confrontation, one of the biggest in legislative-White House relations history, that led to a shutdown, may yet again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just very quickly, you have looked at the language that this president uses, the way he communicates with the American people. Do you — how much do you expect him to stay in that lane, and how much might he change?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Not for long. He doesn't enjoy it. We haven't seen many instances of it.

    If we did, the time we would have seen it would have been in the inauguration, when even the most partisan presidents usually give a really unifying speech. He would be the first to say he did not.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Beschloss, thank you.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    My pleasure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Appreciate it.

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