Nancy LeTourneau makes a great point when she says “It has been a long time since a sitting president was able to give a speech like that.” She didn’t mean that presidents haven’t been able to make good speeches at presidential conventions. She meant that we have to go back a long way to find a president who was had the popularity and moral credibility at the end of their second term in office to even have the opportunity to give a speech like Obama delivered last night.
The last two-term president, George W. Bush, delivered his speech to the 2008 Republican National Convention via satellite. He had some cover for not appearing in person because a hurricane was bearing down on Florida and he didn’t want to look as clueless in response as he had when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. There’s no question, however, that John McCain was not itching to have Bush as his character witness.
In 2000, the country was still angry about Bill Clinton’s behavior in office even if most Democrats thought it had been outrageous to impeach him over it. Al Gore not only tried to create distance between himself and the president, but he selected Joe Lieberman as his running mate in large part because Lieberman had been one of Clinton’s harshest critics during l’affaire Lewinsky. The convention was largely a sales pitch for Clintonism without Clinton.
In 1988, Ronald Reagan was very popular with Republicans and more popular than the person nominated to succeed him, but he was less popular nationally having staggered to the end of his presidency through the Iran-Contra Scandal during which a full third of the country told pollsters that they thought he should resign. He did give a speech at the convention, and his approval ratings spiked during his last year in office. However, Clinton actually had higher approval on his last day in office than Reagan enjoyed.
Jimmy Carter wasn’t a two-term president, but in 1992 it was a different Georgia Democrat who was selected to give the Keynote Address at the Democratic National Convention: Zell Miller. Presidents Nixon and Lyndon Johnson had no credibility left when the 1976 and 1968 conventions rolled around.
As for Eisenhower, he did address the 1960 Republican National Convention in Chicago, but he didn’t bother to mention Richard Nixon’s name. In fact, when asked during a August 1960 press conference to name an idea of Nixon’s that he had used in making an important decision, Eisenhower responded “If you give me a week, I might think of one.” Ike reportedly felt badly about making that remark and called his vice-president to apologize, but the record stands for itself. He didn’t feel enthusiastic enough about Nixon to make a case for him at the convention or any place else.
Going back further, Truman was too unpopular in 1952 to be of any use to Adlai Stevenson, and FDR was dead in 1948 when Truman sought election.
Clearly, of this whole bunch, Reagan comes the closest to having been able to give a speech like the one Obama gave last night in which a popular and morally credible president can make an impassioned and enthusiastic speech in favor of their successor and have it be well-received by the media and the people. But Obama has no Iran-Contra scandal hanging over him. He hasn’t been impeached or had to resign to avoid being convicted. The party doesn’t want to run away from or hide his record.
It seems like a low bar to set, but it’s remarkable that we have to go searching in the mists of time to find a precedent.
If you’ve ever been guilty of taking President Obama for granted, you should put an end to that now. On character and performance, he has no recent peer.