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Obama Can Expect An Unfriendly Audience — But There's A History Here


When the president delivers his State of the Union address tomorrow night, he will stand for the first time before a Congress in which Republicans control both the U.S. House and the Senate. NPR's Don Gonyea says it's a moment that every two-term president since the end of World War II has faced at some point, looking out at a legislative branch newly dominated by the opposition party.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The most recent president to see Congress completely taken over by the rival party was George W. Bush. He had described the November midterms that year as a thumping. But in his January 2007 State of the Union, he opened by marking a significant historic milestone.


PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: And tonight I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words - Madam Speaker.

GONYEA: Madam Speaker is Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the first woman in that post. A note of graciousness and congratulations to the victors are required of any president with the nation tuned in watching and listening. Two years into his presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower greeted the new speaker Democrat Sam Rayburn.


PRESIDENT DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: Today is his birthday, and I want to join with the rest of you in felicitating him and wishing him many happy...

GONYEA: But after that, more than three decades passed before another president faced a similar change of congressional control. It was 1987. Ronald Reagan was starting his seventh year in the White House. Right off the top, Reagan congratulated Democratic Speaker Jim Wright. Then he quoted Eisenhower's 1955 State of the Union.


PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: I cannot find better words than those used by President Eisenhower that evening. He said, we shall have much to do together. I am sure that we will get it done and that we shall do it in harmony and goodwill.

GONYEA: Then there's Bill Clinton's speech just months after the 1994 vote and a Republican sweep that made Newt Gingrich speaker after 40 years of Democratic control in the House. Clinton reminded the GOP that he too had been elected just two years earlier.


PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: If we agree on nothing else tonight, we must agree that the American people certainly voted for change in 1992 and in 1994.


CLINTON: As I look out at you, I know how some of you must have felt in 1992.


GONYEA: Clinton's grudging tone underscores the awkwardness of the moment for a president, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: To some extent, this is the official moment of recognition that the country has not approved of the policies of the party that this president is representing. The president's party has been repudiated. The president's rhetoric reflects that.

GONYEA: In that State of the Union, you can feel Clinton pushing back against Republicans who are ready to engage in battle. The two sides did manage to work together and reach deals on some big issues, including balancing the federal budget. But ongoing tension also led to a government shutdown. The roots of all of that are right there in Clinton's '95 State of the Union. Sometimes outside events make presidents vulnerable politically at the time of a State of the Union address. In '07, for example, George W. Bush had lost the House and Senate and the Iraq war was going badly. He'd even lost Republican support.


BUSH: Ladies and gentlemen, on this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. Let us find our resolve and turn events toward victory.

GONYEA: In 1995 Bill Clinton was still smarting from the failure of his healthcare overhaul. And in his 1987 speech, Ronald Reagan felt compelled to address the Iran-Contra affair, a complicated deal in which arms went to Iran and cash went to fund Nicaraguan rebels.


REAGAN: Although we've made much progress, I have one major regret. I took a risk with regard to our action in Iran. It did not work, and for that I assume full responsibility.

GONYEA: That didn't satisfy his critics who noted Reagan's passive language when he said, quote, "mistakes were made." President Obama in tomorrow's speech will tout the successes of his first six years in office while attempting to shape the next two. It's fair to predict he will not do something President Eisenhower did back in 1955. That's when Eisenhower used part of the speech to call for a little something for those seated in the chamber - a pay raise.


EISENHOWER: I also urge the Congress to approve a long overdue increase in the salaries of members of Congress and of the federal judiciary.

GONYEA: Don't look for Obama to make a similar proposal. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.