Was Obama’s 2015 address a legacy speech?

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss and Beverly Gage of Yale University help compare President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union speech to addresses of past presidents who have entered their last years of power, or who faced partisan gridlock.

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    Now we're going to get a longer view of the president's challenge to Congress tonight.

    Joining us are Beverly Gage, professor of history at Yale University, and NewsHour regular, presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

    Michael, did it seem like a legacy speech to you tonight, based on what you have seen other presidents do at this point in their presidencies?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian:

    Yes, it sure did, Gwen.

    And it may be particularly because of the way he returned to his political roots. We were talking, a few of you earlier, about the fact that he went back to what he was saying in 2004 about the fact that politics doesn't have to be so divided.

    He also said tonight: Tonight, we turn the page.

    That borrowed from his own announcement for the presidency in February of 2007, when he said, it's time to turn the page.

    And that is what these presidents do when they're in the seventh year with a hostile opposition Congress. But domestic programs, most of this is going to be exhibition baseball. And that's very much in that tradition, because there is very little that's likely to get through Congress. It's sort of like what Everett Dirksen, the Republican senator, said about some of John Kennedy's domestic proposals in his State of the Union in 1961.

    He said, Kennedy's speech will have impact on Congress of a snowflake — a snowflake on the bosom of the Potomac.



    I think some of these domestic suggestions the president made may have the same fate.

    But the other thing is that presidents like Eisenhower and Reagan and Clinton and even George W. Bush found that, in their last two years, they could work with Democrats in Congress on some national security and foreign policy programs, for instance, Reagan and Eisenhower on the Soviet Union to improve things, Bill Clinton on the Middle East and Kosovo.

    So we may see that Barack Obama can work with Congress on things like ISIL and Iran, and those things may lead to coalitions that may actually help him in doing domestic things.


    Beverly Gage, what did you hear in terms of the president not only thinking about his final two years, but also trying to win over a Congress that, as we now know, majority Republican in the House and the Senate, trying to get them to work with him on something?

  • BEVERLY GAGE, Yale University:

    Well, I do think it was a legacy speech, in the sense that he was marking a moment. He was very deliberate about marking a moment, about marking the year, the point in his presidency.

    And I also think it was the kind of speech that really allowed him to move out of the mode that he sort of had to be in, particularly on the economy. Up to this point, he's had to say, things could have been a lot worse, and that we could have sunk much deeper into a depression, the recession could have been much worse, my policies prevented terrible things from happening.

    But that's not a very powerful position. So, I think he was really trying to mark this moment as the moment of turnaround, et cetera. And I actually thought he was pretty savvy about putting the Republicans in a position where he was making this grand call. You couldn't really sit there and disagree with him that, you know, everybody was supposed to sort of hang their head in say, yes, things have gotten really bad and, yes, we should all be better people.

    What effect that will ultimately have, I think, is, as many people have said, much less clear. Some presidents who are faced with this situation late in their presidency have actually figured out ways, as Michael suggested, to work on certain particular issues.

    But for the most part, the track record in this situation really isn't great for presidents.


    Michael and Beverly, I wonder — both sides talk about bipartisanship. But is it overrated? Is it something that's always been necessary to be articulated in order to get things done?


    Well, I think it actually might happen in some surprising ways this time, because, from the Republican side, there's a motive.

    And that is that Mitch McConnell and Speaker Boehner — they have both suggested this in some of their public statements — they know that if they spend the next two years, and the American people think that the Republican Congress has been too extreme, then voters in 2016 are going to be pretty unlikely to hand the keys to the car to the Republicans for both the White House and the legislative branch.

    In 1948, Truman was able to turn that against the Republicans and say, you know, elect me against that good-for-nothing 80th Congress, because, otherwise, the government will be out of control.

    So I think, in ways that perhaps we never expected before, we may be surprised by the fact that, on certain very specific issues where there's mutual benefit, you might see the president working with Republicans.


    Well, and, Beverly, there is pressure on the Republicans, too, to perform, to pull something together, isn't there?



    They don't actually want to go into the next election being the party of no, which is a label that has been placed upon them and that has actually really, I think, stuck in certain ways. I think some of the challenge for Obama that, say, a president like Truman didn't actually face is that the parties themselves are much more ideologically divided from each other than they would have been, say, in mid-century, when Truman was dealing with a Republican Congress, or vice versa, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower was dealing with a Democratic Congress.

    Certainly, within the Democratic Party then, you had a much more conservative wing that was a Southern wing. You had a much more liberal wing. And the Republicans also had a much more moderate wing that might form other coalitions.

    And now the ideological divide between the parties is so serious that it's hard to see these coalitions building, outside of moments of crisis or perhaps kind of foreign policy intervention.


    Beverly Gage, Michael Beschloss, our great historians on call for us tonight, thank very much.


    Thanks, Gwen.



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