The Magazine

He’s No Truman . . .

And it’s not 1948 any more.

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By JAY COST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

It is commonly remembered that Truman ran around the country blasting the “Do Nothing” Republican Congress, but this is only part of the truth. In fact, Truman blasted a Republican Congress that not only did none of the progressive things the 1948 GOP platform had promised, but also demonstrated a willingness to roll back the New Deal. For instance, congressional Republicans tried for a time to reduce federal farm subsidies, and they did cut labor down to size with the Taft-Hartley Act. 

This enabled Truman to turn the weak economy of the late 1940s to his advantage. Yes, he admitted, times were tough now, but they had been tough before. That was why FDR gave us the New Deal, which saved the country from the Great Depression. With dark clouds on the horizon once again, did the people really want to boot the Democrats from power and return the party of Herbert Hoover to the White House?

Truman’s campaign was one of the most nakedly partisan and dishonest in modern history. After all, his opponent—Thomas Dewey—was about as far from the laissez-faire wing of the Republican party as one could get. As governor of New York, he had actually stood out as a liberal on many issues, including civil rights. Regardless, Truman’s demagoguery worked like a charm, delivering him a solid, if not overwhelming, victory on Election Day.

No wonder the Obama team would like to re-create Truman’s success. But can it work?

Obama will have some substantial challenges in pursuing this approach. For starters, the Republican nominee would have to behave like Dewey, who overlearned the lessons of 1944. Dewey had been the GOP nominee against FDR that year, too, and was criticized for running too tough a campaign during wartime. So in 1948 he hung back, limiting himself to only the vaguest pronouncements on the stump, thereby enabling Truman to dominate the conversation. There’s virtually no chance that the 2012 GOP nominee will be so accommodating. 

An even larger problem for the Obama administration is the policy context. The public in 1948 remembered fondly the farm supports, banking regulations, and social welfare provisions of the New Deal, to say nothing of success in World War II, and Truman could draw upon this deep reservoir of trust in what the government had done for the country over the last two decades. Such trust does not exist today; instead, the number of people who are skeptical of the government’s competence is at an all-time high. Worse, the main achievement of the current administration—Obamacare—is deeply unpopular, favored by less than 40 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics average of recent polling. And for good reason: Credible reports from nonpartisan agencies like the Congressional Budget Office and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services predict that under Obamacare millions of people will lose their current insurance, pay higher premiums, and may even see their doctors stop accepting Medicare patients. 

In other words, Truman could argue in 1948 that a vote for the Republicans would threaten the social welfare system the country knew and approved; but in 2012 the Republican nominee will be the one who can argue that a vote for Obama will endanger that system.


So, if President Obama cannot look to Truman for a model, where does that leave him? Essentially, he’s in uncharted territory. No incumbent president in the modern era has faced the kinds of trouble he now does—a weak economy combined with an exceedingly unpopular legislative record—and still won reelection. 

That’s not to say he cannot win. Just because something has never been done before does not mean it cannot be done. And with 14 months until Election Day, there is plenty of uncertainty. A lot of things could still break Obama’s way: a third party challenge that steals votes from the GOP, a weak Republican nominee, a surprising rebound in the economy, or some national crisis that creates a “rally round the flag” effect.

The point is that the president is going to have to catch a break somewhere along the line—because he will lose, and by a large margin, if things continue on their present course. In this way, he’s like a Texas hold ’em player who was dealt a pair of diamonds. He has a shot to win with a flush, but he has to hope that the dealer draws another lucky card for him. If that doesn’t happen, he’ll lose.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers