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Obama Strategizes How To Be A Successful Lame Duck President


And NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has been reporting on the challenges of a president beginning his seventh year in office.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: President Obama has made it clear he doesn't want to be a lame duck. And Tuesday night's State of the Union speech is his first chance to show why he won't be one, but that will be hard, says presidential historian H.W. Brands.

H.W. BRANDS: The shelf life of a seventh-year State of the Union address is about five minutes. Presidents can propose stuff. They're probably not likely to get it done.

LIASSON: Addressing a legislature controlled completely by the opposition party sounds daunting, but Mr. Obama is in good company. He's 1 of only 5 lame-duck presidents in history, that is, second-term leaders constitutionally barred from running again. And, says Yale law professor Ian Ayres...

IAN AYRES: All five of these lame-duck presidents, starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower, their last two years have been confronting both a House and a Senate controlled by the opposition party.

LIASSON: But, Ayres says, President Obama is in the running for the title of least lame-duck president because he's aggressively using unilateral executive actions, many of which he'll talk about tomorrow night. All of them, including his ambitious moves to reopen diplomatic relations with Cuba, regulate greenhouse gases or offer deportation relief to millions of immigrants here illegally, can be overturned by a future president. But as a practical matter, they will be hard to reverse.

The architect of President Obama's strategy for the final two years is John Podesta, back for his second tour of duty in the White House. Podesta, who was chief of staff for President Clinton's final two years, says there's no secret sauce to being a successful lame duck.

JOHN PODESTA: You have to be disciplined about what you think you can get done. And you have to be disciplined about what is unacceptable. And you have to make that clear to be open to working with Republicans where we can, but not to be driven by some need to change our priorities because they're now in charge. We'll just have to work that through each and every day.

LIASSON: Michael Waldman, who also worked in the Clinton White House, says President Obama, facing a Congress totally controlled by Republicans, has new opportunities, opportunities he never had when Congress was divided and Democrats controlled the Senate.

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Barack Obama in his seventh year, in a way, is more relevant right now to domestic decisions than when Congress couldn't decide what to order for lunch.

LIASSON: Because, says Waldman, Congress is now going to start actually passing things.

WALDMAN: And he's going to veto them or sign them. And you're going to actually have negotiations. You're going to actually have lines drawn and battles joined and arguments made about the role of government, about proper economic policy, about immigration and other things as opposed to this kind of cacophony of people yelling at each other but nothing happening.

LIASSON: The same pen that signs executive orders, says Waldman, also signs laws or veto messages. Members of both parties will be listening carefully tomorrow night to see how Mr. Obama lays out the battle lines. To what extent will he challenge Republicans on issues like immigration, climate change and tax reform or his own Democrats on trade?

The other thing to listen for is the tone the president strikes. Successful lame ducks have said some memorable things in their final years in office - think Eisenhower warning about the military-industrial complex or Reagan telling Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. Waldman says tomorrow night offers Mr. Obama an opportunity to rewrite the narrative of his own presidency after a year that was full of crises, but ended with an accelerating economy.

WALDMAN: One of the puzzlements about Barack Obama's rhetorical presidency has been his reluctance to tell a coherent, long-term story about the success from his eyes of what he's been doing. A jolt of optimism and positive analysis of the country, of its direction and of the economy would be something people haven't heard and I think would really mark the tone.

LIASSON: And, says H.W. Brands, if Barack Obama starts retelling the story of his presidency tomorrow night, it will be the first step toward becoming a not-so-lame lame duck.

BRANDS: You might say presidents are drafting the first chapter of their memoirs in these seventh-year State of the Union addresses. They're trying to get the public and the media to think about their presidencies in the way that they would like to have them thought of.

LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.