What will President Obama's objective be for today's speech in Cleveland?

Mar 18, 2015

Wednesday President Barack Obama continues a Cleveland tradition - speaking at the City Club. The 3 p.m. speech will be streamed live here.

Other sitting presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, have all had their turns at the podium, often at key points in their political careers.

President Obama’s City Club speech will focus on middle class economics.  During his last visit in November 2013, Obama also spoke of the middle class, comparing the turnaround of the city’s ArcelorMittal steel plant to a determined push towards prosperity.

“When we work at it, we know we can get to a better place, and we can restore some security to a middle class that was forged in plants just like this one, and keep giving ladders of opportunity for folks who were willing to work hard to get into the middle class.  That’s what I’m about,” the president said in November.

These hopeful high notes targeted northeast Ohio residents, who weathered a housing crisis, recession, and stagnant wages over the past decade. 

And this late in his final term, the President can afford to be rosy as he crafts his legacy. Much like Ronald Reagan was in 1988, at his City Club appearance.  Reagan used the moment to champion his presidency and Republican initiatives. 

“We cut taxes, we quashed inflation, deregulated the economy unleashing the creative energies of the American people," President Reagan said. "The result would never have been imagined, by expert opinions eight years ago.  Some 14 and a half million new jobs, more jobs than Europe and Japan, created, combined."

But Jim Foster, who was the City Club’s Executive Director for 20 years, recalls there was an ulterior motive for Reagan’s speech.

“President Reagan came specifically because there were concerns about how sharp he was or wasn’t, and they wanted to demonstrate that he was fully capable, had all his faculties," Foster said.

Five years later, on May 10, 1993, President Bill Clinton – just months into his first term – promoted his vision for America…which included tackling a $300 billion deficit.

“The results have been clear: a limited ability to create new jobs, even when productivity is growing," President Clinton said. "We’re allegedly in an economic recovery of some 17 months in duration and yet the unemployment rate is higher this month than it was at the depths of the recession."

Later, Clinton signed the Deficit Reduction Act of 1993, credited as helping provide a surplus in later years.  And Clinton came back for a second turn at the podium in the fall of 1994.

“It was called “Restarting the Economic Agenda” and it was right before the midterms, and it was a critical forum to try to get some traction as far as the economic policies that they’d been putting forth but that they had not been very successful in getting a lot of public support for, Foster said. ”

A week after Clinton’s remarks, the so-called “Republican Revolution” swept Congress - a development that challenged the president’s agenda and set the stage for a government shutdown. 

The most recent sitting president to speak to the City Club had his own share of conflicts, nine years ago.

“The central front on the war on terror is Iraq,” President George W. Bush told the City Club.

Bush spoke on May 20, 2006, the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq War.  By this point, the Abu Ghraib scandal and prolonged fighting against insurgents were making the American public weary of the conflict. President Bush used his appearance to justify the war, and the ouster of a tyrant.

“There’s much discussion in our country about the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, and our remaining mission in Iraq," President Bush said. "The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was a difficult decision.  The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision.”

Jim Foster says Bush wanted to demonstrate he wasn’t afraid to take questions about the war.  The president’s question-and-answer time was more than 40 minutes.

“It was quite extraordinary; it was almost like a press conference only it was for the general public because it wasn’t reporters asking questions, it was actual citizens,” Foster said.

It’s safe to expect that President Obama will champion his initiatives—from the Affordable Care Act and his push for increased exports – as well as frame his party as the one that’s looking out for middle class Americans in this battleground state. 

Meanwhile, Republicans are preparing for their own forum here next year, when the Republican National Convention comes to Cleveland.