For Obama, Is It 1948 Redux?
In selling his American Jobs Act and setting himself up for the 2012 presidential campaign, many pundits have noted that President Obama appears to be engineering a "Give 'em Hell Harry" or a "Do Nothing Congress" campaign, referring to Harry Truman's amazing come-from-behind 1948 victory. But few know that the original Truman campaign was also a political contrivance.
Going into the primaries, things looked bad for Truman. During the previous midterm elections, the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress. Only 32% of the country approved of Truman's job performance. And Democratic leaders hinted that Truman should not run for reelection. Indeed, perceiving Truman's weakness, the Democratic Party splintered: conservative Southern Democrats followed Strom Thurman and formed the "Dixiecrats," and liberal Democrats followed Henry Wallace and formed the Progressive Party.
On November 19, 1947, the now-legendary Democratic strategist Clark Clifford handed Truman his confidential memorandum, "The Politics of 1948." In it, he told Truman to sponsor a series of proposals to attract liberal and independent voters knowing in advance that they would be blocked by the Republican-controlled Congress. These proposals should focus on the issues of inflation, the housing shortage, and preventing the Republicans from reducing taxes on the rich (by the way, in 1947, the top bracket was 86%!) Clifford also urged Truman to stay in front of the Republicans on civil rights in order to sustain African-American support.
The heart of this brilliant strategy was to keep the conflict between Congress and the president. In such a contest, Clifford explained, "[t]he Presidency is vastly more flexible than Congress." The president has the Bully Pulpit and he can always act much faster than can any group of senators or congressmen. "There is little possibility that he will get much cooperation from the Congress," wrote Clifford, "but we want the President to be in position to receive the credit for whatever they do accomplish while also being in position to criticize the Congress for being obstructionists."
After winning the Democratic nomination, Truman called a special session of Congress on July26, 1948. In his address, he proposed the series of liberal policies suggested by Clifford, which later became known as the Fair Deal. The first proposal was an "excess profits tax." Other proposals included price controls, rent controls, a housing bill, a school construction program, a federal employee salary increase, teacher salary hikes, an increase in the minimum wage, greater Social Security benefits, a health care bill, and the strengthening of labor and anti-trust laws.
Right before the address to Congress, Truman issued Executive Order 9981, ending segregation in the U.S. military. Politically, this was a brilliant strategy. It contrasted presidential action to congressional inaction. And it firmed up Truman's liberal and black base -- never mind that the Republican platform had already called for the integration of the military.
Then after Labor Day, Truman launched his famous campaign. He crisscrossed the nation on a train, traveling over 21,000 miles and giving hundreds of speeches. He said that "the do-nothing" Congress was blocking all of his programs to help the working people. The only thing Republicans want to do is "give tax relief to the rich at the expense of the poor." The crowd urged him on by saying, "Giv 'em hell, Harry!"
The morning after the election, the Chicago Tribune headline read: "Dewey Defeats Truman," but when all the votes were tallied, Truman was the victor.
It is obvious that Team Obama is deliberately following the Clark Clifford strategy. Like Truman, Obama called a special session of Congress to propose his American Jobs Act, knowing in advance that the Republican-controlled House would reject it. Like Truman, Obama used an executive order to effect social change in the military (by allowing gays to openly serve) to prop up his liberal base. And like Truman, Obama is giving speeches all around the country, saying the obstructionist "do-nothing" Republicans in Congress are blocking his jobs bill, hurting the economy, and currying favor with the wealthy elites.
There is, however, at least one major difference between 2012 and 1948. In 1948, the Democratic Party was still the dominant party of the era, although after sixteen years of victories, they were getting complacent. But many people still had deep loyalty to the party of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. About 40% of the country identified as Democrats. Now only 33% identify as Democrats, and the energy is in the conservative Tea Party movement. We shall see if this turns out to be the crucial difference.