When President Barack Obama took office, at a time of grave financial crisis and disgraced laissez-faire economics, many of us hoped that he would be the next Franklin D. Roosevelt. That hope, to put it mildly, has not materialized. In fairness to Obama, he took office while the crisis was still deepening. FDR, by contrast, was inaugurated after the depression had festered and Republicans had dithered for more than three years, creating a popular mandate for more drastic change.
But if Obama is not destined to be the next Roosevelt, he can choose from one of two very different presidential role models, Harry Truman or Bill Clinton. When Clinton lost his congressional majority in the 1994 midterm elections, he moved emphatically to the center. He saved his own presidency by positioning himself almost as a president above party -- the famed strategy of "triangulation." But he did a lot of damage to Democrats along the way, suggesting that they were somehow too left-wing for the country.
Truman took a different route. When Republican obstruction of his policies was unrelenting and his own popularity was near an all-time low, he recovered by becoming an effective partisan and a resolute progressive. He not only saved his own presidency in the great election upset of 1948 but enabled Democrats to take back Congress in one of the largest vote swings in American political history. With the 1948 election, the House went from 246 Republicans and 188 Democrats to 263 Democrats and 171 Republicans, a net pickup of 75 seats for the Democrats.
Today, Republicans have made clear that they will settle for nothing less than the destruction of the Obama presidency. The common ground that Obama has sought is not to be had. But even as Obama is belatedly rejecting the illusion of bipartisanship, the usual suspects are urging him to move closer to the GOP. Doug Schoen, one of the architects of Clinton's triangulation, recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "It is a profound mistake to believe that the Democratic resurgence and President Barack Obama's election were a validation or an endorsement of a return to big government and Democratic liberalism." Instead, Schoen commended to Obama the example of Clinton, who adopted "the bulk of the Republican ideas on taxes, spending and welfare reform in 1996."
That's one way to save a Democratic presidency -- some would say, why bother? But mercifully, it is not the only way. Obama could learn a lot from Truman.
Harry S. Truman was first elected to the Senate in 1934 as a product of Kansas City's corrupt Pendergast machine. As a senator from border-state Missouri, Truman during the 1930s tacked back and forth between supporting Roosevelt's New Deal and occasionally siding with Southerners and Republicans who opposed it. He first came to national prominence as head of the wartime Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, soon known simply as the Truman Committee.
The committee's investigations of waste and corruption in military contracts saved the taxpayers an estimated $15 billion. Truman's role gave him his first populist edge as the scourge of corrupt war profiteers. The Truman Committee investigated shoddy contractors whose negligence had cost the lives of American servicemen, scandals immortalized in Arthur Miller's All My Sons.
In that era, despite the overwhelming popularity of President Roosevelt, other party figures had far more influence than their counterparts do today. Vice President Henry Wallace, a darling of the labor left but a quirky personality, had managed to alienate key figures in Congress, the administration, and the Democratic Party. By early 1944, it was clear that he would be dumped at the party's July nominating convention. The segregationist Sen. Jimmy Byrnes of South Carolina seemed to be the front-runner to replace Wallace, but the party's liberal and labor leaders made it clear that they could not live with him.
After a brief boom of support for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Truman emerged as the compromise candidate and was nominated to succeed Wallace. He had no real working relationship with FDR. Upon Roosevelt's death in April 1945, Truman found himself president of the United States only months after being sworn in as vice president. He was totally unprepared. He had not even been briefed on the atomic bomb.
For the party's liberal wing, Roosevelt's death was a crushing loss. Not only did Truman lack FDR's stature, but he was far more centrist. In 1945 and 1946, Truman was preoccupied with foreign and military policy. On domestic affairs, he replaced several leading New Dealers with more orthodox figures.
Truman faced the huge challenge of converting the war economy to peacetime, absorbing 12 million vets and millions more idled war-production workers without kindling either unemployment or inflation. Liberals criticized Truman for abandoning wartime wage and price controls too quickly. When unions, which had been docile during the war effort, pressed for deferred wage increases, Truman worried about the effect on inflation. In several high-profile conflicts, he seized factories and broke strikes in industries as diverse as coal, oil, steel, and railroads, invoking emergency wartime powers still on the books. He enraged Roosevelt's close ally, CIO President Philip Murray, by supporting legislation authorizing an anti-strike injunction.
Initially, Truman also lacked Roosevelt's sensitivity on race. He grew up in Missouri in the late 19th century when it was rigidly segregated. He sometimes used the n-word. When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow pianist Hazel Scott, wife of Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, to perform at Constitution Hall, in an echo of the famous Marian Anderson incident of 1939, Powell asked first lady Bess Truman to boycott a tea that the DAR had arranged in her honor. Mrs. Truman attended anyway, leading Powell to blast her as "the last lady of the land." Liberals objected that Eleanor Roosevelt never would have attended.
Truman signed the Employment Act of 1946, a watered-down version of a far more robust full--employment bill. Liberals had hoped that the newly created Council of Economic Advisers would be staffed by Keynesians, but Truman picked a more centrist group, with Edwin Nourse of the moderate Brookings Institution as its first chair. So on a number of fronts, liberals felt that they had lost a champion in the White House.
By the eve of the 1946 midterm elections, Truman's popularity rating was just 33 percent. He was widely viewed as a little man far out of his depth. A popular one-liner had it that "to err is Truman." To nobody's great surprise, Republicans took control of Congress.
It was then that Truman rediscovered his New Deal roots. Far from accommodating himself to the Republicans, Clinton-style, Truman fought them at every turn. Despite his own bitter battles with labor just months earlier, he vetoed the Republican-sponsored anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, which he termed a "slave labor act." The act was passed over his veto. He was more successful in blocking several other Republican bills. Truman emulated Roosevelt in championing public power. He nominated and fought hard to win Senate confirmation of the revered New Dealer David Lilienthal as head of the Atomic Energy Commission.
And he emerged as a somewhat improbable champion of civil rights, appointing a President's Committee on Civil Rights that delivered a landmark manifesto, "To Secure These Rights," and addressing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) convention in June 1947, the first president do so. There he delivered a tough speech promising the extension of basic rights "to all Americans." The black press even compared Truman favorably to the beloved Roosevelt. "We cannot recall," editorialized the flagship Pittsburgh Courier, "when the gentleman who now sleeps at Hyde Park made such a forthright statement against racial discrimination."
With pundits predicting a landslide Republican win in 1948, a famous memo authored by advisers Clark Clifford and James Rowe in November 1947 urged Truman to double down on his New Deal liberalism. In June 1948, he used an invitation to accept an honorary degree at Berkeley to make a two-week whistle-stop rail tour of the American heartland. He began abandoning his rather stiffly delivered prepared texts and speaking off the cuff. He made a few impromptu gaffes, but audiences warmed to him. He covered 9,505 miles, delivering 73 speeches to an estimated 3 million people. A new persona emerged: Truman as a plainspoken man of the people.
Truman also began accepting more ideas from his left, another important history lesson for Obama. At the party's Philadelphia convention in July, delegates from the newly created Americans for Democratic Action, led by Hubert Humphrey, pushed through a very strong civil-rights plank for the party platform. Truman had initially favored a much milder statement on civil rights explicitly designed not to alienate the white South, but he didn't actively oppose the stronger one. Truman was now a civil-rights president. He would later desegregate the armed services by executive order.
With the Cold War percolating, Americans for Democratic Action had been founded as the voice of the noncommunist New Deal left, in contrast with the Wallace wing of the party that accepted the support of the far left. ADA for a time wanted to dump Truman, beseeching Dwight Eisenhower to run as a Democrat, but as Truman became more of a progressive, the ADA became his fervent supporter. Without the pressure of both the ADA and the Wallace forces further left, Truman would have been much more inclined to seek the safe center. The passage of a strong civil-rights plank was the final straw that led to a convention walkout of key Southerners, who formed their own States' Rights Party with Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as nominee. Further to the left, the newly created Progressive Party, made up of people who rejected Truman's Cold War policies, nominated former Vice President Wallace.
With defections on both Truman's left and right, commentators were convinced that Truman was doomed. But then, at the party convention, Truman announced the brilliant tactic of calling Congress back into session so that he could dramatize the stark differences between Republican policies and his own. With this surprise announcement, according to historian David McCullough, "the cheering and stomping in the hall was so great he had to shout to be heard."
Truman then sent Congress a Rooseveltian package of legislation on housing, aid to education, a higher minimum wage, development and reclamation programs for the South and West, increased Social Security, and expanded public power, knowing that it stood little chance in the present Congress. Truman biographer Alonzo Hamby writes, "The objective was not to achieve compromise legislation that all sides would probably consider flawed. It was to underscore ideological differences for a presidential campaign. In achieving this goal, Truman was extraordinarily effective. The dozen or so significant vetoes he issued in 1947 and 1948 underscored differences between Democrats and Republicans on issues such as income equity, labor-management relations, regulation of business, and the New Deal welfare state."
The observation bears repeating. Truman's strategy was not to achieve flawed compromise legislation but to underscore differences -- differences that would play to Democrats' latent strength as the party of the common people. Truman's strategy, in short, was 180 degrees from the one that Obama has been pursuing. Until the health-reform showdown of March 2010, on no major issue has Obama introduced the bill that he really wanted, to emphasize party differences and to embarrass Republicans into either casting an unpopular vote or backing legislation that they didn't want. Obama's objective was precisely to achieve legislative compromise, often badly flawed. He would be wise to read up on Truman.
Truman's attacks on the "do-nothing 80th Congress" created the lasting image of "Give 'Em Hell" Harry, friend of the average American. Meanwhile, the timing of the Soviet Union's Berlin blockade and the coup in Czechoslovakia, both in 1948, undermined the credibility of Wallace's peace campaign, while Truman's strong support for civil and labor rights kept most black and trade-union voters from defecting to Wallace. Several leading Southern moderates refused to join the Dixiecrats, while the Republican nominee, Gov. Thomas Dewey of New York, succumbed to front-runner disease and ran a safe, lackluster, and uninspiring campaign.
In September, Truman embarked on an extended version of his earlier two-week rail tour across America. This time, he would spend a total of 33 days and cover 21,928 miles. With each stop, his attacks on the Republicans grew more scathing, and his subject was nearly always the economy and the Republicans' role as the party of obstruction and privilege. In Dexter, Iowa, he told a crowd of some 90,000 people, "I wonder how many times you have to be hit on the head before you find out who's hitting you? ... These Republican gluttons of privilege are cold men. They are cunning men. ... They want a return of the Wall Street dictatorship. ... I'm not asking you to vote for me. Vote for yourselves."
Speaking in Denver, he told a crowd of 25,000 people in front of the state Capitol, "I'm not talking about the average Republican voter. ... Individually, most Republicans are fine people. But there's a big distinction between the individual Republican voter and the policies of the Republican Party. Something happens to Republican leaders when they get control of the government. ... Republicans in Washington have a habit of becoming curiously deaf to the voice of the people. They have a hard time hearing what the ordinary people of the country are saying. But they have no trouble at all hearing what Wall Street is saying."
Imagine if Barack Obama spoke like that! As McCullough summarizes the trip, Truman "was cheerful, friendly, and full of fight." Speaking in Congressman Sam Rayburn's hometown of Bonham, Texas, Truman said, "Our primary concern is for the little fellow. We think the big boys have always done very well, taking care of themselves. ... It is the business of government to see that the little fellow gets a square deal. ... Ask Sam Rayburn how many of the big-money boys helped when he was sweating blood to get electricity for the farmers and the people in the small towns."
This was a language of populism, even of class warfare, another idea that is wildly out of fashion and regularly disparaged by commentators. But this language accurately describes the relationship of Wall Street to Main Street in 1948 -- and in 2010. Populism turned out to be winning politics for Truman, not because it was cheap demagoguery but because there were real differences between the parties and major public issues at stake whose resolution one way or the other would benefit different classes of voters. Billionaire Warren Buffett once quipped that there is class warfare in America, "but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning." It is astonishing how the commentators who cluck about the perils of mentioning class routinely ignore endemic class warfare from the top.
Before the 1948 election, Newsweek polled 50 leading political journalists to see who they thought would win the presidency. All 50 predicted Dewey. A tiny handful of journalists traveling with Truman sensed the change in public opinion. "There is an agreeable warmheartedness and simplicity about Truman that is genuine," Richard Strout wrote in his New Republic column. Three months earlier, on the eve of the Democratic Convention, the same magazine had run a cover piece on other possible Democratic nominees to save the party from certain defeat, headlined, "Truman Should Quit."
Today's conventional wisdom would say that with a Democratic president's public-approval ratings in the 30s and the Republican Party controlling Congress, the obvious strategy would have been for Truman to embrace the Republican ideology and program. Thank God Truman was not being advised by the likes of Doug Schoen.
Historical parallels can only be stretched so far. Today's voters do not remember Herbert Hoover, but they certainly remember George W. Bush and the collapse of 2008. With a little reminder from Obama, they might reject the House and Senate Republicans as the "party of no."
Throughout his personal odyssey and his political career, Obama has sought common ground. "I have spent my entire adult life trying to bridge the gap between different kinds of people," he declared in April 2008. "That's in my DNA." Both of his books are filled with warnings about the perils of ideology and partisanship.
The battle over health care has been a learning experience for Obama about the limits of bipartisanship. Yet Obama's personal sensibility is still far from Truman's. You get the sense that he is turning to a Democrats-only strategy on health not because he is fed up with Republican obstruction but only as a last resort. His yearning for common ground is real.
Speaking at the House Republican Caucus retreat in Baltimore, Obama insisted that he was open to good ideas from any quarter. "I am not an ideologue. I'm not," he declared. But ideology is not some arbitrary penchant for clinging to stale ideas. It is a principled set of beliefs about how the economy and soci-ety work, and should work. To be a conservative Republican is to believe that markets function just fine, people mostly get what they deserve, and government typically screws things up. To be a liberal Democrat is to believe that market forces are often cruel and inefficient; that the powerful take advantage of the powerless; and that there are whole areas of economic life, from health care to employment, where we need activist government. Obama needs to be more ideological, in the best sense of the word.
Truman, to be sure, lived in a different time. There are no longer presidential whistle-stop rail tours. Yet the decision to go on the attack was Truman's -- just as Obama until very recently has stressed the quest for consensus.
It is also a bit too facile to contend that Truman did not have the 24/7 news cycle to contend with and could speak directly to the people. Ronald Reagan, after all, was president in an age of media saturation, when liberal press voices were stronger than they are today and when there was no Fox News. Yet Reagan was superb at taking his case directly to the people and using media against itself. People who did not like his individual policies nonetheless supported the whole package because Reagan offered a convincing narrative and sounded like a leader when he delivered it. Obama, with his mixed messages, has often lost control of his narrative and let his opposition define him.
The period between the Jan. 19 election of Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts to the Senate and Obama's March 3 call for Democrats to pass his health reform may yet be remembered as the turning point in Obama's still-young presidency. Obama's ratings in terms of his effectiveness have been falling, but he remains personally popular. Most Americans want him to succeed. They are waiting for him to lead. So why not lambaste the Republicans for their negativity and obstructionism? Why not remind the voters of the differences between the two parties? And why wait until a midterm defeat? Why not become a fighter for ordinary Americans right now?
Harry Truman would surely approve -- and so would the voters.
This piece partly draws on Robert Kuttner's forthcoming book, A Presidency in Peril (Chelsea Green).