Obama, Truman and the Reality of American Politics

Obama, Truman and the Reality of American Politics

Obama will need much more than rhetoric—even rhetoric of the Truman "give 'em hell" variety—to win next year's election.


The line in Washington among political professionals is that President Obama opted for the Harry Truman approach when he put forth his big tax proposal last week. This is based on a number of perceptions, to wit:

First, Obama knows his $1.5 trillion tax-increase measure can’t pass Congress because Republicans in the House will never let it through that chamber.


Second, he is thus setting up an epic ideological clash with the GOP on fiscal policy, designed to shape and direct the debate during next year’s presidential election campaign.

Third, this will position Obama to attack the opposition with Truman-like grit, energize his base and squeeze out a reelection victory.

As a Wall Street Journal editorial explains, Washington’s conventional wisdom has it "that the President is trying to emulate Harry Truman by setting up a 'do-nothing Congress' as a re-election foil."

All this would make sense if presidential elections turn on ideological positioning and campaign debating points. But they don’t. They turn on two things: performance and promise. The only way Obama can get reelected is by logging a record of performance that engenders confidence in the electorate that the next four years under him would hold promise for relatively good times. Beyond that, there isn’t much he can say or do to affect his fate at the hands of the voters.

Thus, if Obama’s Truman-like approach could actually reenergize the economy, avert a double-dip recession and set unemployment numbers upon a downward trajectory, then it could enhance his political prospects. But it’s difficult to see how that’s possible with a proposal put forth without any serious chance of enactment.Debates don’t drive the economy…or affect developments in the geopolitical sphere...or fool the electorate about a president’s actual performance in office and his prospects for future success.

What this suggests is that presidential elections are largely referendums on the incumbent or incumbent party, and they turn on elements of White House success over the previous four years. Those elements may include such things as whether the economy is growing; whether per capita personal income has increased or declined; whether the country is bogged down in an intractable war; whether protest street violence has emerged in a magnitude that raises questions about the country’s stability; whether the country has seen positive domestic developments suggesting ongoing national progress; whether its standing in the world is robust or tattered. In presidential politics, nothing trumps the three staples—peace, prosperity, and domestic tranquility.

This prism of political analysis can be crisply explained through what might be called the Truman fallacy—the prevailing historical perception that Truman’s plucky and relentless attacks on the do-nothing Republican Congress account for the "surprise" 1948 presidential victory of this unassuming man who had been ridiculed and dismissed right up to the point of his "upset" triumph. A promotional blurb for Irwin Ross’s lilting narrative of Truman’s victory, The Loneliest Campaign (published in 1968), calls it "the incredible story of the year Harry Truman ‘Gave ‘Em Hell,’ laughed at the polls, and rewrote the political rulebooks." It was indeed an incredible story, but Truman didn’t rewrite any political rulebooks. Presidential elections were referendums before that campaign, and they have been referendums since.

Truman’s great achievement was an achievement of governance, not of campaigning. His victory flowed from his presidential decision making and the successes yielded from that decision making during the term he inherited from Franklin Roosevelt just three months after FDR’s fourth inauguration.

His first-term successes included the difficult but bold decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, thus ending World War II and saving perhaps a million American lives; America’s instrumental role in creating the United Nations and embracing the Bretton Woods structures designed to ensure a stable international system and global economy; the policy of "containment" that saved Western Europe from the threat of Soviet communism, poised on the West’s doorstep with 1.3 million Soviet and client-state ground troops; the Marshall Plan, which distributed some $12.5 billion in aid over just four years as an investment in a prosperous and stable Europe; the National Security Act of 1947, which revamped the military and intelligence apparatus of the country, creating the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency; the difficult but ultimately successful transition from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy, with a modest but welcome GDP growth of 2.6 percent in the campaign year; and the heroic decision to save West Berlin with an airlift.

Taken together this is the kind of performance that the voters generally reward with presidential retention, as the voters did with Truman in that raucous campaign year of 1948. His "give ‘em hell" rhetoric certainly energized his base and enlivened the campaign, but it would have availed him nothing had not his record rendered him eligible for rehire by the collective electorate. Four years later, it is worth noting, the same President Truman presented a second-term performance that can only be described as a failure—the economy sputtering, the country bogged down in an intractable war in Korea that seemed to have little prospect for victory, petty corruption emerging from presidential cronies from his Kansas City days as a cog in the infamous Pendergast machine, the communist takeover of China. The president’s Gallup approval rating in 1952 plummeted to 22 percent, and any hint of a Truman reelection bid would have been laughed at. The voters, in their unsentimental way, would have summarily abandoned the man who had been embraced by them just four years earlier.

So will it be with Obama next year if his performance record is viewed by the collective electorate as inadequate. He can set up opposition Republicans for a rhetorical assault and blame them for the ills of the nation. He can "give ‘em hell" in the Truman tradition. He can put forth proposals he knows have little or no chance of enactment. But ultimately he will rise or fall on his record, as reflected in the state of the country at the time of the election. If he wants a second term, his every action between now and then will have to focus intently on that fundamental reality of American presidential politics.

Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy.