PHILADELPHIA — When President Obama speaks at the Democratic National Convention here on Wednesday night, he’ll be just the fifth second-term president in 56 years to address a convention as he’s preparing to leave office.
Due to assassination, war, political scandal and a bad economy, six presidents since Dwight Eisenhower left office in 1961 have served one term or less.
As a rule, a second-termer’s convention speech is a combination of reflection and self-congratulation, along with an appeal for continuity and an exhortation to help the party nominee coming after him. Even though they were rivals eight years ago, Obama has a demonstrable personal bond with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, and that should be plainly apparent when he speaks.
Obama is also certain to talk about climate change, as he clearly views his work to combat the effects of global warming as an important part of his legacy. In fact, it’s a pretty good bet Obama will talk about energy and the environment far more than any of his predecessors did during their valedictory convention speeches.
Still, it is interesting and fun to see what other recent two-term presidents said about energy production and protecting the planet — and about their would-be successors — as they were making their convention farewells. Each of the speeches is, to a degree, a reflection of their times.
President Eisenhower — Tuesday, July 26, 1960, Chicago
Ike’s speech wasn’t noteworthy just for what it said, but for what it didn’t. He made no mention of his vice president and the front-runner for the Republican nomination, Richard Nixon (though Nixon’s nomination had not, at that point, been completely sewn up).
Eisenhower’s speech is also noteworthy for his use of flowery and sophisticated language more common to that era, when speaking in sound bites wasn’t the norm for politicians.
"The enthusiasm I find throughout this convention evidences your support of the domestic and international leadership that has been provided by Republicans for the past 7 ½ years," Eisenhower said near the top of his speech. "This means to me that under sound Republican direction, you want, first of all, to stimulate — never weaken — the sturdy self-reliance of the American citizen, and to sustain his equality before the law."
Much of Eisenhower’s speech was a reflection of the Cold War, with lots of talk about military strength and security. "My friends, I have come before you to testify to my great pride in the America of today and my confidence in the brightness of our future. I glory in the moral, economic and military strength of this nation, in the ideals that she upholds before the world, and in her readiness to assist the less fortunate of the Earth to obtain and enjoy the blessings of freedom."
Eisenhower also laid out the Republican position, still in vogue today, that Democrats rely too much on the government to stimulate economic growth.
"We believe profoundly that constant and unnecessary government meddling in our economy leads to a standardized, weakened and tasteless society that encourages dull mediocrity; whereas private enterprise, dependent on the vigor of healthful competition, leads to individual responsibility, pride of accomplishment and, above all, national strength. This has always been, is now — and I pray will always be — basic Republican doctrine."
Eisenhower did not say anything about energy or the environment. But he did tout the "unprecedented" advances in science and technology during his administration — fueled in measure by robust government spending. He also noted that "constructive solutions must be found for difficult agricultural problems."
Toward the end of his speech, Eisenhower acknowledged some of the ideological divisions in the GOP, but he declared the debate healthy — and "good." And he expressed optimism that Republicans would win the White House again for the third straight time that November.
"My wife and I look forward next Jan. 20 to meeting all of you, knowing that you will come with the happy, glowing faces of victors," he said.
But it was not to be: Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy, narrowly.
President Reagan — Aug. 15, 1988, New Orleans
It took 28 years from Eisenhower’s 1960 speech before another successful second-term president would address his party’s convention. Reagan’s enduring popularity had a lot to do with Vice President George H.W. Bush’s victory over Democrat Michael Dukakis that fall — the first time the same political party had won three straight presidential elections since 1940.
"I think we can be forgiven if we give ourselves a little pat on the back for having made ‘Republican’ a proud word again and America a proud nation again," Reagan said at the opening of his speech.
Reagan was elected in a 1980 landslide over President Carter due to a faltering economy, symbolized in part by fuel shortages that resulted in long lines at the gas pumps. Carter tried to promote clean energy and efficiency measures, but they were largely panned by the voters, and Reagan and Republicans attempted to exploit that for decades (Greenwire, Sept. 5, 2012).
"Fuel costs jumped through the atmosphere, more than doubling," Reagan reminded conventiongoers in New Orleans. "Then people waited in gas lines as well as unemployment lines."
Reagan talked about all the changes he brought to the political discourse "in spite of the resistance of those liberal elites. … They resisted our defense buildups. They resisted our tax cuts. They resisted cutting the fat out of government. And they resisted our appointments of judges committed to the law and the Constitution."
Reagan then went on to describe Bush as his partner: "George played a major role in everything that we have accomplished in these eight years.
"Early in the first term, we set out to reduce federal regulations that had been imposed on the people, on businesses, and on state and local governments," Reagan explained. "Today, I’m proud to say that we eliminated so many unnecessary regulations that government-required paperwork imposed on citizens, businesses and other levels of government has been reduced by an estimated 600 million man-hours of paperwork a year. And George was there. … George Bush headed up that task force that eliminated those regulations."
As he came close to wrapping up his speech, Reagan addressed Bush directly: "So, George, I’m in your corner. I’m ready to volunteer a little advice now and then and offer a pointer or two on strategy, if asked. I’ll help keep the facts straight or just stand back and cheer. But George, just one personal request: Go out there and win one for the Gipper."
Despite Bush’s solid win in November 1988, he could not secure a second term in 1992, as the era of good feeling that Reagan ushered in started to fade from voters’ memories.
President Clinton — Aug. 14, 2000, Los Angeles
Clinton spoke at some length about energy and the environment in his speech — in part because he was trying to boost his vice president, Al Gore, who had already sounded the warning about climate change and its potential impacts on the planet.
Clinton’s entry into the Staples Center arena was panned as overly triumphal, reminiscent of that summer’s popular movie "Gladiator." But when he started speaking, he went quickly to work on Gore’s behalf.
"Isn’t it great to be in California?" Clinton said at the beginning of his speech. "Forty years ago, Los Angeles launched John Kennedy and the New Frontier. Now, Los Angeles is launching the first president of the new century: Al Gore."
Soon after, Clinton called asking Gore to be his running mate "one of the best decisions of my life."
Clinton then talked at length about how the improved economy made the United States more secure at home and abroad. He added: "We are more secure because our environment is cleaner. We’ve set aside more land in the Lower 48 states than any administration since Teddy Roosevelt, saving national treasures like Yellowstone, the ancient California redwoods and the Florida Everglades. Our air is cleaner; our water is cleaner; our food is safer. And our economy is stronger."
Clinton described Gore as a "thoughtful and hardworking partner" and "a profoundly good man," someone unafraid to make tough decisions.
"Whether it was reforming welfare, protecting the environment, closing the digital divide, or bringing jobs to rural and urban America, there has been no stronger champion than Al Gore," Clinton said. "More than anybody else I’ve known in public life, Al Gore understands the future and how sweeping changes and scientific breakthroughs affect Americans’ daily lives."
But all of Clinton’s enthusiastic prose could not get Gore across the finish line. Although he won the popular vote, Gore lost the electoral vote to George W. Bush. He would go on to joke that he "used to be the next president of the United States," and became an even more forceful advocate for addressing climate change.
President George W. Bush — Sept. 1, 2008, St. Paul, Minn. (by video)
Bush was not particularly popular in the nation when Republicans gathered in St. Paul to nominate Arizona Sen. John McCain for president. The original plan was to have Bush speak to the convention on the first night and then leave town quickly.
But then Hurricane Gustav hit in the Gulf Coast, reminding voters of the Bush administration’s bungled handling of Hurricane Katrina three years earlier. The Republicans canceled their first night of the convention — and Bush was reduced to addressing the confab by video the following night, even though first lady Laura Bush, who was considerably more popular at the time, remained in Minnesota to deliver her speech in person.
Bush spoke mostly about McCain — who had been his chief rival in the bitterly fought campaign for the Republican nomination eight years earlier. He talked about McCain’s experience and character, and mentioned energy production only in passing, even though gas prices were nearing record highs and congressional Republicans were trying to prod the Democrats, who then had majorities in both chambers, to do something about it.
McCain, Bush said, "will invest in the energy technologies of tomorrow and lift the ban on drilling for America’s offshore oil today." Bush also described McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, as "strong and principled" and "an outstanding leader."
Bush then told delegates that with his wife present in the convention hall, "you have clearly traded up."
McCain lost that November to Obama — who now prepares to deliver his own convention speech for the last time as president.