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To Deal With Hostile Congress, Obama Can Look To History


When the new Congress is inaugurated next month, President Obama will be looking down Pennsylvania Avenue at Republicans in charge in both the House and Senate for the first time in his presidency. Of course he's not the first president to face this kind of Congress, although the campaign suggests this might be an unusually confrontational bunch, which is why we brought in presidential historian Michael Beschloss to take us through how this has worked in the past and what it might tell us about how President Obama will or will not work with the 114th Congress. Welcome.


WERTHEIMER: So let's start with historic examples. Which presidents have had to deal with this in recent history?

BESCHLOSS: Well, if Harry Truman is recent, I guess he would. Truman, you know, famously lost Congress in 1946 only a year after he became president. And this was a Congress that, on many domestic things, he confronted them. But we sometimes forget that on foreign-policy he made a lot of deals that had to do with the making of NATO and confronting the Soviet Union in Europe. And so that was actually a case where his ability to do this really counted. And then obviously in more recent times, Bill Clinton, in the middle of the 1990s, having lost Congress as well, made some deals with Newt Gingrich and the Republicans that led to a balanced budget and also welfare reform.

WERTHEIMER: The one I remember so clearly was Jerry Ford. With the 1974 election, the Republicans lost everything because it was the wake of Watergate election. And so Jerry Ford, who had been the appointed vice president, was president. And he vetoed everything that the Democratic Congress did. I mean, more vetoes than have ever been cast by any single president in a similar time period.

BESCHLOSS: And the great irony is that all these vetoes were against Jerry Ford's grain because he was the most agreeable guy on the House, making all sorts of deals across the aisle. But his advisers convinced him that if you use the veto even more energetically than other presidents, this will make you look like a strong leader. And also it's going to please some of the conservatives in your party who are uneasy about you.

WERTHEIMER: I think it's very interesting to think about what President Obama might take from these examples. Do you think any of this is still relevant - relevant to him?

BESCHLOSS: It probably isn't as germane a historical example because we're living in a more bitter time where there's more polarization. So what that suggests is that President Obama has to look for ways to find common ground with various groups of Republicans on the Hill, in some ways, that are sort of idiosyncratic.

WERTHEIMER: Like what?

BESCHLOSS: Trade is one and more likely is areas of foreign-policy. And that's what presidents oftentimes do when they feel frustrated by not having a lot of control in Congress. Ronald Reagan in 1987 and 1988 did an awful lot to end the Cold War - nuclear arms agreements, other things with the Soviet Union. And in certain cases he had more support of a Democratic side of Congress than he did on the Republican side.

WERTHEIMER: Now this president - do you think he's got it in him to stand up to the GOP if they start pushing him?

BESCHLOSS: It looks as if there are signs of this that are pretty large. For instance, in recent weeks, this is someone who stood up to the Republicans in the House and Senate on immigration after they told him that that would be, you know, essentially lighting a fire and creating a very bad situation if he did. So he did it anyway. He did the same thing on diplomatic relations with Cuba, which I think if we were talking 10 days ago, we would have said that if President Obama had done that that would be very audacious and that would have an awful lot of political risk. So I think he may have the message in his mind that if he wants to finish out this presidency and be remembered for having done important things during his last two years, the way to do it is to be audacious which has the added advantage of being a word that was included in a book he once wrote.

WERTHEIMER: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss - his most recent book on the presidency is called "Presidential Courage." Thank you so much.

BESCHLOSS: My pleasure, Linda, always. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.