09.09.11

Obama’s Truman Moment

Like Harry Truman decades ago, Obama is saddled with a midterm election loss and low approval ratings. But with his jobs speech the president found a new voice—and perhaps his inner Truman, says Harold Evans.

Has Barack Obama found his inner Harry Truman?

The parallels are eerie. Truman in 1946 lost midterm elections, just as Obama did last fall. The Republicans took the House (their first time since 1930) and the Senate. Truman’s approval ratings tanked, falling much lower, at 32 percent, than Obama’s have done. Unemployment wasn’t the issue it is today, but inflation was just as scary, and one in 10 of the labor force went on strike in 1946.

Truman had a miserable summer. He was pretty well written off, as much of the country started to write off Obama after the debt-ceiling circus. People forgot Obama’s Osama coup. He was in danger of becoming a joke, just as Truman was. “To err is human," was everyone’s quip then. The Chicago Tribune took every chance to flay Truman, as The Wall Street Journal daily flays Obama.

“Look at little Truman now, Muddy, battered, bruised—and how!”

Heading into 1948, Republicans were hungry to eat up the New Deal. For Robert Taft then, read Rick Perry today.

Truman brilliantly exploited that regressive attitude. He came up with new proposals—just as Obama has done with the American Jobs Act in his speech to the joint session of Congress. The Republicans became the party of No. Maybe they will do the same with Obama’s Jobs Act. And maybe Obama will do what Truman did.

Truman made the Republican Congress his whipping boy. He recalled it for a special session on July 26. “Out in Missouri,” he said, “we call it Turnip Day.” Taft, angry at being brought back into steaming Washington, duly fell into the Truman trap. He led the massacre of Truman’s Turnip Day proposals.

Obama was in danger of becoming a joke, just as Truman was.

Then Truman found a new voice—as Obama did in his Thursday speech ordering Congress to “Pass this Act now!” Truman did it in on two whistle stop tours. He stopped his droning speeches and adopted a feisty, homey style answering questions on the tours. About this time in September 1948, he went on an epic 21,928-mile journey. Huge crowds at every whistle stop heard Truman from the back of his rail car gleefully blaming everything on the “do nothing Congress.” The cry “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” began to rise, and the delighted 33rd president would reply: “I never give anyone hell. I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.”

He romped home with 303 electoral votes.