Obama Not The First To Take Fiscal Fight On The Road

Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin speaks with presidential historian Michael Beschloss about presidents in the past who have taken their policy agenda on the road, as President Obama is doing with his efforts to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Before the official start of his second term, the president himself has to deal with a major legislative challenge, the across-the-board spending cuts and tax increases that will take effect next year unless the White House and Congress can reach a compromise. But in lieu of banging out a deal with congressional leaders face to face, the president is taking his case for how to solve the crisis on the road.

Mr. Obama is hardly the first president to try to influence Congress on a particular issue by waging a public PR campaign. Theodore Roosevelt was the one who coined the phrase bully pulpit to describe the singular power of the presidency to communicate to the American people.

For more on the presidential road trips that have paid off, and those which have been, we're joined by presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Michael, thanks for talking with us.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, we mentioned Teddy Roosevelt. He is the one who came up with this idea of the bully pulpit in the first place. He must've been pretty good at this?

BESCHLOSS: Yeah, and we should mention that bully pulpit had nothing to do with polls. Bully with something that meant splendid. So his point was that the presidency is a splendid platform to use to influence public opinion. But that even when all the way back to Andrew Jackson, who was probably the first one to say that I am the one person in the country that represents all of the people; all these people in Congress have much more limited points of view.

So he was the first one went directly to the people in the same way that he did his two campaigns, and tried to affect the fate of Congress, which is basically what all these presidents have been trying to do.

MARTIN: So: Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson. Who else among our presidents was particularly adept at this kind of public messaging?

BESCHLOSS: Well, Woodrow Wilson tried. After the Versailles Conference there was a Treaty of Versailles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

PRESIDENT WOODROW WILSON: I avail myself of the earliest possible opportunity to lay the treaty before you for ratification. My brothers, the stage is set.

BESCHLOSS: Republican Senate was opposing it, so Wilson said, I'll go on the road and see what I can do. So we went on this transcontinental train trip, 40 speeches; finally collapse of exhaustion, had a stroke. The result of all this however was that the treaty still was rejected by the Senate. So as good an orator as Wilson was thought to be at the time, had almost no effect.

MARTIN: Any other examples of when this kind of strategy may backfire? Has it backfired spectacularly for anyone?

BESCHLOSS: Sure has. Franklin Roosevelt had the idea - and this is after he won in 1936; biggest presidential landslide in history; hugely Democratic Congress. But what he was upset about was a lot of these Democrats, especially from the South, were conservatives, they were blocking his liberal New Deal measures.

So he thought, you know, not just go and give speeches to put pressure on them. He actually went into the states and he would speak against a sitting Democratic senator and say, I urge you voters to vote for his opponents. Sometimes even do this in the presence of the senator concerned.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: I feel that I have every right to speak in those few instances where there may be a clear-cut issue between candidates for a Democratic nomination involving these principles, or involving a clear misuse of my own name.

BESCHLOSS: People took this as a sign of how strongly Roosevelt felt. Election came around and not one of his candidates won.

MARTIN: Nixon also tried this and failed.

BESCHLOSS: Nixon was trying to keep his job in late 1973 and early 1974. He began with something called Operation Candor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: And I want to say this to the television audience. I made my mistakes. But in all of my years of public life, I have never profited, never profited from public service. I've earned every cent.

BESCHLOSS: The fact that he had to have an operation that was called that gives you...

(LAUGHTER)

BESCHLOSS: ...a little bit of an idea what that presidency...

MARTIN: Contrived candor.

BESCHLOSS: ...had been, exactly. So, press conferences, he had a press conference. That's where he said I'm not a crook.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

NIXON: I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, but I can say that in my years of public life that I welcome this kind of examination. Because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook.

BESCHLOSS: It didn't help his case particularly. Traveled a lot in early 1974; tried to connect with members of the Senate and the House who might oppose his impeachment and conviction. As you can see that didn't work either.

MARTIN: Historically, Michael, have presidents actually been able to really move public opinion? Or by getting out there and engaging with the public, are they just tapping into or mobilizing existing sentiment?

BESCHLOSS: Well, they are trying to basically arouse the public on something that's immediately interesting to them, just as President Obama, as you've mentioned, is trying to do on the fiscal cliff.

What really works however is when, especially in these times, when a president spends his entire presidency in communication with the people; traveling a lot, getting them a sense that, you know, not only is this one time that he's going to the well, but this is sort of a constant relationship. I think it has tended to be more effective that way.

But the one thing that's different, I think, from most of these cases in history is that here Barack Obama, twice now, has established a campaign which has used all sorts of new social media techniques, analytical methods, helped him get elected twice. The interesting thing will be to see if these things help him to succeed in moving opinion and influencing Congress in a way that these previous presidents weren't able to do.

MARTIN: How much of this, at the end of the day, is about securing one's presidential legacy, as opposed to actually achieving some kind of legislative victory?

BESCHLOSS: I think there's a lot to that. Because what a president knows is that in history people like me will go back and read the speeches. And if there were not speeches in which he set out what he wanted to do in a fairly persuasive and dramatic way, people like me will tend to criticize them.

So, for instance, you saw Barack Obama in late 2011 going to Osawatomie, Kansas to give a speech sketching out what he thought that an informative, big federal government can do to help people's lives. Very much in the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt who gave a speech there a century earlier. So the whole cycle came around.

MARTIN: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss. His most recent book is called "Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy."

Michael, thanks for coming in.

BESCHLOSS: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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