Michael Beschloss is a noted historian and author of nine books including "Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How they Changed America, 1789-1989". (He's also an active members of the Twittersphere and an absolute must-follow.) We reached out to Michael after President Obama's news conference on Tuesday to ask him about the bully pulpit, presidential power and how much the next eight days will shape President Obama's legacy. Our conversation via email is below, edited only for grammar.
FIX: President Obama has walked to lunch with Joe Biden, given a speech at a local small business and held a press conference this week. Is this what the modern bully pulpit looks like?
Michael Beschloss: At the time Theodore Roosevelt popularized the term 'bully pulpit' a century ago, newspapers would print a President's formal speeches on the front page in full, and that's how Presidents mainly conveyed their messages. Even a half century ago, when a President wanted to give an Oval Office speech, it was broadcast on all major networks in prime time -- and without talking heads before and afterwards deconstructing what he said. But by the 21st century -- thanks to cable TV, the Internet, social media and public skepticism about everyone and everything -- a President's voice has lost its primacy. He is out there competing with everyone else for attention and respect.
FIX: Is the bully pulpit overrated as a persuasion tool? Or is Obama just not that persuasive a figure for Republican Members of Congress? Or Democratic Members of Congress for that matter?
Michael: In the world of Frank Capra, a President moves a controversial proposal from sure defeat in Congress to sure victory by giving one spectacular speech. Modern Presidents like to threaten that if the House and Senate don't follow them, they'll go over the heads of Congress by appealing directly to the American people. But it's hard to find many cases in real life during the past century where that's really happened.
FDR in 1938 tried to break a deadlock against his second-term program in Congress by going into various states and campaigning for pro-Roosevelt candidates in Democratic Senate primaries. This effort resoundingly failed. Nevertheless in modern times the strongest Presidents have been those who seem to build an emotional bond with Americans so that they feel they know his heart enough to give him the benefit of the doubt on certain controversial issues.
FDR, Ike and Reagan had that, and it no doubt helped them with Congress at key moments. Not even President Obama's staunchest allies would argue that, despite two election victories, he's been able to build that kind of support. The other part of this is those who sentimentally argue that Obama's situation in Congress would be very different if he had the extroversion and persuasive skills of an FDR or LBJ.
Maybe at the margins -- Presidents can indeed get votes from Congress by generating affection, loyalty and fear. But FDR's success on the Hill, and Johnson's in 1965, were mainly thanks to the fact that these two guys enjoyed some of the largest Democratic majorities in Congress of the twentieth century. And some of their weapons of persuasion, such as subtle hints to individual members that Presidents had amazing access to IRS and FBI files and that theirs had better be in order, are thankfully illegal these days.
FIX: President Obama had hoped to have gun control reform and immigration reform as part of his 2nd term legacy at this point. He has neither. Does that fact make this showdown with congressional Republicans over debt and spending that much more important to his legacy?
Michael: I said in January 2013, at the time of the inauguration, that President Obama had about six months to get his most important bills through Congress. This prediction struck some people as a little extreme, but the reason I said this was not only the ferocity of the opposition to him in the Republican House but the fact that modern Presidential second terms are usually front-loaded on the Hill -- especially in the House, where members from swing districts in Year 5 are not likely to make big sacrifices for any President for long because they would like to survive past the next election.
Even LBJ, coming off his vast Presidential and Congressional victory of 1964, told his aides they would have only about six months to get the keystone bills of the Great Society passed, for this reason. And he turned out to be right: most of the bills that we think of as the crux of Johnson's program -- Voting Rights, Medicare, poverty, education -- were passed before September 1965. So unless President Obama wins back the House in 2014, regains the kind of working majority he had in 2009 and 2010 and gets key measures passed, then the outcome of this current confrontation is likely to loom very large in whatever historians write about him.
That having been said, even in his last year, although he had announced he wouldn't seek reelection and suffered (after the 1966 election) sharply reduced majorities in both the Senate and house, Johnson was able to get such difficult measures passed as Fair Housing and some form of gun control.