President Barack Obama’s Lessons from Harry Truman: David McCullough

With the president plotting how to recover from the midterm elections in 2011, bestselling historian David McCullough spoke to The Daily Beast about what Obama should learn from Harry Truman’s 1946 midterm defeat.

Ever since the Republicans wrested control of the House away from the Democrats in November, experts and historians have been combing through recent memory for lessons. How could President Obama make the most of what he himself dubbed a “shellacking”? Would he be condemned to Capitol Hill stalemates for the next two years?

Perhaps, the pundits suggested, he might learn from Bill Clinton, who was severely tested when Republicans took over Congress in 1994. Or maybe it was worth studying Ronald Reagan’s damage-control tactics after the 1982 midterms.

But, as the historian David McCullough pointed out in a telephone interview last month, there is another president whose lessons might offer the greatest solace. A president who lost both houses of Congress and managed to fight back with the two most productive years of his presidency—Harry Truman.

“I think that, with all due respect, President Obama’s now got to show us what he’s made of," McCullough said. “If he’s made of the kind of clay we hope he is, people will love it.”

Truman’s first step was to weather a brutal storm. In the wake of the 1946 midterms, he was savaged in the press, abused by his own party, and Democratic Senator J. William Fulbright even called on him to resign—a degree of public humiliation that President Obama has not suffered.

“[Truman] never blamed anybody for his predicament. He never acted any way but confident and optimistic. And we were the beneficiaries.”

“Truman wasn’t a great persuader, as his predecessor FDR had been, or as President Obama is,” said McCullough, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Truman, and recently introduced a new collection of the letters of Truman and his secretary of State, Dean Acheson. “He didn’t have that advantage. What he did was lead by example, rather than by memorable eloquence or rhetoric. And he was very effective at it. He was a fighter.”

In the buildup to the 1946 midterms, the failed haberdasher with a funny accent from western Missouri was extremely unpopular. In the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt, McCullough said, “it seemed laughable that Harry Truman was president of the United States.” To voters, he had come to represent a Democratic Party that had grown complacent after controlling both houses of Congress for a decade. And, making matters worse for Truman, the country was worried that the end of World War II and scaled back military production would lead to an economic downturn.

But Truman was not shaken. Never one to bemoan circumstance, he made it known to those around him that the midterms had not turned him into a lame duck overnight. As he told his wife, Bess, he planned “to do as I damn please for the next two years and the hell with all of them,” according to McCullough.

“I think history has shown that we Americans like confidence and optimism in a leader, McCullough said. “We don’t like hypocrisy or self-pity. And he came back determined to be himself and to show a lot of what he really stood for.”

The result was that in 1947 and 1948 he broke new ground on domestic and foreign fronts. The press called it his New Authority. Seeing a communist threat bubbling in Greece and Turkey, he introduced the Truman Doctrine, which became a cornerstone of American foreign policy during the Cold War. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he became the first president to address the NAACP and promised that the federal government would act to end discrimination. When Israel declared its independence, Truman immediately recognized its legitimacy. And, in one of the shrewdest personnel moves of his career, he appointed General George Marshall as secretary of State.

“He didn’t try to act like Franklin Roosevelt,” McCullough said. “He acted like Harry Truman. He never blamed anybody for his predicament. He never acted any way but confident and optimistic. And we were the beneficiaries.”

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Joshua Robinson is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated.