March 7, 2010
'Give-'Em-Hell Barry' in 2012?By David Pietrusza
As the current White House occupant, Barack Obama, experiences the most precipitous first-year decline in popularity in recent memory, we seek historical precedents. Statistically the most apt example is that of the patron saint of presidential underdogs, Harry S. Truman.
A month after assuming office in April 1945, Truman recorded a phenomenal 87% approval rating. He tumbled to 32% the following fall before righting his ship and achieving his own "Dewey Defeats Truman" upset victory in 1948.
All embattled incumbents eventually cite that comeback: If never-say-die Harry Truman rebounded, then by Zogby, so can I! It's more than a handy reference point; it's iconic -- and sometimes it even comes true.
And so today's question remains: Will the Truman model reincarnate itself as the Obama model in 2012?
So much, as always, depends upon the economy. Despite persistent inflation jitters, Harry Truman's America remained essentially prosperous. The massive postwar economic dislocation everyone feared never occurred. The year 1948's average unemployment rate stood at a phenomenally low 3.8%. To those still painfully recalling Depression-era bread lines, the early Truman years indeed seemed like nirvana.
Will Barack Obama turn around a wounded economy? Reduce unemployment to single digits? Restart lending? Stay tuned. If he does, he may, in the manner of Ronald Reagan, yet survive.
Both Obama and Truman faced fracturing within their own party. How Obama deals with the competing visions of progressive and more moderate Democrats remains to be seen, but Truman dealt rather forcefully with opposite ends of the party, essentially stonewalling both Henry Wallace Progressives and southern Dixiecrats. At day's end, his approach solidified, rather than eviscerated, his position. Segregationist votes he forfeited in the Deep South were counterbalanced by African-American support in key northern states such as Illinois, Ohio, and California. Feuding with Henry Wallace served to inoculate him against growing suspicions that the New Deal had become too cozy with domestic communists. Again, how Obama will act is unknown, but where Harry Truman indecorously fired Henry Wallace as his secretary of commerce, Barack Obama might well have appointed the same man his commerce czar. Distancing himself from his party's more radioactive elements will likely prove far more difficult for BHO than for HST.
While Truman and the Robert Taft-led 80th Congress clashed on every domestic front, on foreign affairs, GOP Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator Arthur Vandenberg provided Truman with unprecedented bipartisan support for Cold War initiatives such as the Marshall Plan, Greek-Turkish aid, the Berlin Airlift, and a peacetime draft. Domestic policy has virtually eclipsed foreign policy during Obama's first year, but with the partisan divide now measured not in feet but in time zones, it remains to be seen if Republicans would support Obama's foreign policy as they did Truman's six decades ago.
And, in any case a conspicuous U.S. presence in Afghanistan may very well trigger a significant vote-siphoning splinter-party effort, replicating the 1948 Henry Wallace effort. Even without any compelling rationale for their candidacies, Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney garnered a combined 900,078 votes in 2008. In 2012, progressive splinter party totals might easily double or even triple. Again, Harry Truman turned a similar handicap into an asset. Al Gore did not.
Harry Truman and Barack Obama initiated their respective tenures with fellow Democrats controlling Congress. In 1946, however, both the House and Senate tumbled into GOP hands, thus enabling Truman two years later to rail against the "Do Nothing 80th Congress." His shifting of responsibility for whatever disconcerted voters proved crucial to his victory. He could not have so damned a Democratic Congress. Accordingly, though a 2010 Republican congressional takeover may hardly be Plouffe-Axelrod Plan A, such a setback may prove not only salutary but also essential to their candidate's 2012 fortunes.
Harry Truman could not spend all his time running against Herbert Hoover. Nor can Obama indefinitely blame "the last eight years" for everything -- as his bizarrely artless attempt to rationalize Martha Coakley's defeat so obviously illustrated. A "Do Nothing 112th Congress" might equally prove to be Barack Obama's prize asset in 2012, for found among politics' more useful rules is this: It's not whether you win or lose, but where you place the blame.
Deficits? Hardly a problem for Mr. Truman in 1948. The federal budget had shriveled from $98 billion in fiscal year 1945 to $33 billion in 1948. By July 1948, Treasury Secretary John Snyder could announce the largest surplus in history -- $8,419,469,843.81 -- a full seven times larger than the previous record -- $1,155,000,000 -- achieved in 1927. Deficits in 2012 appear likely to be enormous.
Common man Harry Truman and Ivy-Leaguer Barack Obama stand at rhetorical polar opposites. Obama's pre-election reputation for oratory was soon followed by a less enviable reputation for teleprompter addiction and a Thomas E. Dewey-like personal coolness, even frigidity. Conversely, Truman could not effectively deliver a speech from a prepared text to save his life. Off-the-cuff, however, he projected sincerity and admirable feistiness. "Give-em-Hell Harry" was the master of extemporaneous oratory. Even his turning-point convention acceptance speech was largely impromptu. Obama unscripted remains the Wizard of Uhs.
Even preceding 1948, Truman's electoral diploma bore the seal of the school of hard knocks. Obama has enjoyed generally more leisurely contests. Obama's first state senate race saw all four of his primary opponents removed from the ballot, leaving him unopposed. His original GOP opponent for United States Senate quickly became embroiled in a sex scandal and abandoned the race. Obama was pushed over the presidential nomination finishing line not so much by what should have been cakewalk late primary victories (Hillary captured the majority of primary delegates from April on) but by support from unelected superdelegates.
Obama has never successfully fought with his back to the wall -- never been, à la Bill Clinton, the "comeback kid." Truman, on the other hand, actually lost his county legislative position in 1924, only to return to office two years later. He won his United States Senate seat in 1934 only after a bruising three-way primary. In 1940, after his mentor, Kansas City Democratic boss Tom Pendergast, went to prison for tax evasion, Truman was given up for dead.
Truman refused to surrender. He crisscrossed Missouri, battled hard, spoke plain, and survived -- developing the blueprint for his 1948 triumph. Barack Obama does not enjoy the benefit of such unpleasant yet crucial experience.
That is the history. Whether Barack Obama will succeed or fail in emulating his scrappy predecessor depends, however, not upon history, but largely upon future actions regarding a stubbornly dislocated economy. For in the end, as Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter learned to their sorrow, no occupant of the White House can retain his paycheck unless a sufficient number of his constituents retain theirs.
That history never changes.