Jacob Heilbrunn

More thoughts on Harry Truman

When Harry Truman was about to step down from the presidency, he reportedly said something along these lines to an aide: "Poor Ike! He's used to the military, where everyone follows orders. As president, he will learn that he sends out a directive and nothing happens." What Truman meant by that, of course, was that ultimately the bureaucracy rules Washington. The troubling thing about Barack Obama is that he never seemed to grasp that he had to govern as president instead of being a passive observer. The new revelations in Ron Suskin's book about Obama being ignored by his own advisers only compound the sense of unease surrounding the Obama presidency. Now we are promised, as Robert Merry and Paul Pillar note in their stimulating essays, a new Obama, one on the fighting lines of Truman. Merry notes that it is the record, not rhetorical flimflam, that will count when voters assess Obama. Part of the trouble with Obama may simply be his inexperience. It would be hard to think of anyone more different than Obama and Truman. Truman served and saw fierce combat in World War I. He commanded men in battle. The corruption of Kansas City politics probably helped him to prepare for dealing with Stalin in the postwar era. Truman was also a student of history—in retirement he wrote a history of the Roman empire. Obama, by contrast, refused to attend the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. If Obama is judged by the standard that Merry raises, he is in for a rough time. Americans cannot ask themselves whether they are better off than they were four years ago. The question will be: Are you worse off or just holding steady? Not all of this is the fault of Obama. As the Truman anecdote indicates, a president can only control so much. Obama was dealt a very bad hand indeed when he entered office. But voters will judge him by how he played it. So far they do not seem impressed. Anxiety prevails abroad as well. In Jermyn Street in London, a shopkeeper anxiously asked who the next president would be. Even in venerable Jermyn Street, sales are down. "If you don't get it right, we won't," he said. "We follow what you do." What America does and does not do matters abroad. The stakes in 2012 could hardly be higher.