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Incumbents in Trouble: Lessons for Bush?

Presidential incumbents can have a tough time at their party conventions, especially if big problems have dogged their first terms. As President Bush, who appears to be in a close race with John Kerry, prepares to accept his nomination in New York City this week, Republicans hope his convention and particularly his speech Thursday night will improve his public standing.

NPR's Steve Inskeep talks with NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts about convention speeches of other incumbents who faced serious challenges to see if there are any lessons to be learned.

Harry Truman, facing economic woes and a divided party, had a 29-percent approval rating during the Democratic convention of 1948. "People went into that convention with signs saying 'I'm Mild About Harry,' so he was in real trouble," Roberts says.

Truman used his middle-of-the-night speech to tout the Democratic record and his predecessor Franklin Roosevelt's accomplishments. He also attacked the Republicans on Capitol Hill -- and even made a surprise announcement calling Congress back into session. In a famous upset, Truman went on to defeat Republican Thomas Dewey.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford invoked Truman and also tried to make Congress the enemy in his GOP convention speech. "I respect the convictions of those who want a change in Washington. I want a change, too. Let's change the United States Congress." Ford lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Four years later, Carter had troubles of his own -- the Iran hostage crisis and record inflation. Though he tried in his speech to unify the country around his vision of inclusion, the Democrat was soundly beaten by Ronald Reagan.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush faced a difficult reelection battle. He was in trouble with some Republicans for having agreed to raise taxes, and called it a mistake. Then, attacking Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Bush said: "Who do you trust in this election, the candidate who's raised taxes one time and regrets it or the other candidate who raised taxes and fees 128 times and enjoyed it every time?" Bush lost the election to Clinton.

Roberts says "one of the most instructive lessons here is, don't go after your opponent by name, and also be blessed in not having opposition in your own party. And this President Bush is blessed that way."

As the outsider, Kerry had an easier task with his convention speech than Bush will, Roberts says. "A person who's introducing himself to the nation always has the theme, 'It's time for a change,' which is one of the great sayings of American politics. The incumbent usually runs on, 'You've never had it so good.' George Bush can't do that so he has to run on 'You've never been so safe.'"

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Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.