Paul Pillar

Why Obama Can't Be a Truman

Robert W. Merry's insightful observations about the ingredients in election success or failure for incumbent presidents provide much food for thought, for both supporters and opponents of President Obama. It certainly is true that how voters treat a president up for reelection depends much more on the state of the union that he leads than on accusations that are hurled from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other. Most of those who pay attention to the substance of the accusations are already true believers on one side or the other. Most of those in the rest of the electorate who pay any attention are more repelled by the accusations than persuaded by them. Let me offer a few more related observations, by way of extension and refinement, not contradiction.

First, to the extent that a presidential election is in effect a referendum on what has been happening during a president's first term, what voters are reacting to is less the president's performance per se than the overall condition of the republic and the circumstances of its citizens, regardless of how much the president was able to do anything about this. Incumbent presidents and their parties benefit politically from good times and they suffer politically from bad times, no matter what are the detailed causes of the good or the bad. The referendum results thus depend partly on things outside the control of any U.S. official, such as ominous developments overseas. And they depend partly on things for which the president shares responsibility with others, particularly Congress and maybe others such as the Federal Reserve, as is the case with economic conditions and especially unemployment, long known to be a major determinant of election results.

Second, to the extent that the election-cum-referendum does depend on the incumbent president's performance, the nature of that performance in turn depends a lot on the times and the opportunities and challenges that they present to the president. This was a major reason for the contrast between Harry Truman's two terms, as described by Merry. Truman did not somehow become less competent in the latter half of his presidency than he was in the first half. The remaking of the world order after World War II was bound to be seen as one of historic achievements. Second-term happenings such as the Chinese revolution and the Korean War did not provide as much opportunity to get on the right side of history.

Third, notwithstanding how anyone views Truman's first-term achievements, domestic matters and especially the state of the economy trump foreign affairs as an influence on election results. The closest thing to the post-World War II world-reordering moment that we have seen since then was the end of the Cold War. The president in office during that event, George H.W. Bush, did an excellent job of managing the moment. But he became a one-term president, beaten by a Democrat who realized that when it came to winning an election it was the economy, stupid.

All of the preceding points are ones of continuity. But we also should note one large difference between Truman's time and the present, which is the greatly intensified partisanship that has infected all issues of public policy, including foreign affairs. Those foreign policy achievements in the late 1940s were products of bipartisanship. (Truman's railing against a “do nothing” Republican-controlled Congress had to do with its position on his Fair Deal domestic program.) A key figure was Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Vandenberg was in every respect a partner of Truman regarding the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the creation of NATO and other initiatives. One shudders to think of how Congressional Republicans of today, applying the attitudes and methods of today, would have responded to the same situation. There certainly would not have been any Vandenberg-like concept of politics stopping at the water's edge.

Which brings us back to the political implications of the present day's economic woes. Given how deep was the recession that Obama inherited, how stubborn has been the resulting unemployment, and how strong has been the historical connection between this one economic statistic and the reelection record of presidents, Barack Obama's prospects for November 2012 look grim. Don't think that Congressional Republicans—who have acted as though the end justifies the means and have been quite open that their overriding end is to defeat Obama's reelection bid—haven't noticed these connections. If an Obama-proposed jobs bill has no chance of passage, it is because it runs up against not only Republican ideology but also a Republican interest in sustaining high unemployment long enough to bring down the Democratic president.

I suppose a political lesson in this is that if you leave office, as George W. Bush did, amid unpopularity and bad economic times, you might as well hope that the economic conditions will be so bad that the leader of the other party will suffer political consequences four years later.