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How to Win When You’re Unpopular: What Obama Can Learn From Truman

With an economy seemingly on the precipice of a renewed recession, an angry conservative movement that regards him with disdain, and a disillusioned liberal base disappointed in his first term, Barack Obama’s bid for reelection next year will, by all indications, be a tough, maybe even uphill fight. But daunting as the campaign may seem, the president can at least take some solace in a precedent from 64 years ago: Harry Truman’s campaign for reelection in 1948—successful, despite a poor economic climate, and a polarized electorate—offers a promising path for Obama’s reelection. The question is whether he’s prepared to take it.

In terms of the difficulties they faced, these two Democratic presidencies have plenty of parallels. Most prominently, both were hampered by crippling midterm elections, fueled largely by anger about the poor state of the economy, which produced sweeping and across-the-board loss of seats for their party in Congress. In 2010, Democrats lost 63 seats in the House and 6 in the Senate, losing the House after four years in the majority and losing most of their comfortable cushion in the Senate. In 1946, Democrats lost 55 seats in the House—where Republicans grabbed a comfortable majority for the first time in sixteen years—and 13 seats in the Senate, giving Republicans there a 51-45 edge, their first majority in fourteen years.

The 80th Congress of 1947 and 1948 actually had some impressive achievements, acting with commendable bipartisanship on foreign affairs by enacting the Marshall Plan and a sweeping reorganization of the executive branch that included the establishment of the Defense Department and the National Security Council. But the Republicans’ record on domestic policy was something else entirely. As historian William Leuchtenburg put it, “they veered so sharply to the right that they alienated one segment of the electorate after another. They antagonized farmers by slashing funds for crop storage; irritated Westerners by cutting appropriations for reclamation projects; and, by failing to adopt civil rights legislation, squandered an opportunity to make further inroads among African-American voters.” At the same time, by pushing the anti-union Taft-Hartley legislation over Truman’s veto, they drove a labor movement furious with Truman back into the president’s arms.

In what will no doubt sound familiar to watchers of the current Congress, the sweeping GOP victories in 1946 convinced many Republicans that they had achieved a lasting ideological victory—that the American public had finished with the liberalism under FDR and Truman, and embraced their brand of conservatism. They were wrong. Voters had reacted to short-term economic conditions, and to a post-war mood for change, but not for a new right-wing ideology.

But it was Truman’s triumph to realize that the hyper-partisan Congress was as much a political boon as it was a political liability. Truman seized upon the conservative over-reaching and openly fought against what he dubbed the “Do-Nothing Eightieth Congress.” That rhetorical strategy paid dividends, as voters rebelled against the ideologues and the Democratic base was energized to elect a president they had long disparaged and opposed. Not only was Truman reelected—pulling off the upset of the century in a four-way race with a popular Republican nominee, Tom Dewey, and Democrats running to his left (former Vice President Henry Wallace) and right (states’ rights advocate Strom Thurmond)—but Democrats picked up nine seats in the Senate and a full 75 in the House to recapture both bodies. “The luckiest thing that ever happened to me,” Truman remarked years later, “was the Eightieth Congress.”

Barack Obama ought to be able to leverage his own recalcitrant Congress for political gain. The sitting 112th Congress, like Truman’s 80th, is dominated by a Republican House that believes that its sweeping victory reflected a huge public mandate to dismantle government as we know it. The overreaching in this case does not involve passing laws that get enacted over a presidential veto, but in precipitating artificial crises—over appropriations that are set to expire in a new fiscal year, over a debt limit that has always been raised without preconditions—to create hostages and force extreme actions. Far more than the 80th, the 112th is a true “Do-Nothing” Congress, producing little progress, and showing little interest, on key national policy areas from education to energy.

But, unlike Truman, Obama has constantly sought common ground with Congress. While that strategy averted a descent into national default, it has not been met with an olive branch on the other side. Obama’s embrace of the “Gang of Six” debt reduction proposal in the Senate, a call for substantial changes in core entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, along with major tax reform and more revenues, was not greeted with applause by most Republicans. Instead, it only reinforced Republicans’ ideological partisanship. Speaker of the House John Boehner rejected any attempt at a “Grand Bargain”, because his caucus would not countenance a deal that included any revenues at all. The message was clear: anything that Obama is for, Republicans will be instantly against. It’s a playbook from which the GOP is unlikely to diverge anytime soon.

There’s an argument to be made that the president’s passive-aggressive approach to policy-making actually paid big benefits in terms of policy successes in his first two years. There is no way the House and Senate both would have passed health reform bills, for example, if the president had intervened aggressively and demanded things like a public option that would never have survived a filibuster in the Senate.

But however much Obama deserves to be commended for his instinctual pragmatism and his commitment to finding common ground with his political adversaries, that doesn’t mean it amounts to a wise electoral strategy in the year ahead. Obama must reckon with the fact that the 112th Congress will be an implacable political foil. If he does so, he’ll be able to profit from the Republicans’ ideological overreach. But a continued willingness to compromise without pushback will only encourage Republicans in Congress to increase their demands and push for more confrontation. The resulting turmoil will soon irredeemably sour independents against the entire government, including the president.

The alternative is not for the president to abandon negotiation or make his own set of non-negotiable demands, but to channel his inner Harry Truman. That means first redefining the terms of debate, framing a narrative across the country by both decrying the bickering and describing the consequences for voters everywhere if the Republican Congress has its way—what the budget cuts in the House budget would mean for medical research, how people with serious disabilities would be forced onto the streets, Medicaid patients unable to get organ transplants, and so on. The president’s domestic policy achievements from his first two years were not received enthusiastically by voters, and the record this year is dismal, but he can take a chapter from Truman’s playbook by describing in detail the many pressing issues facing the country, which the 112th House, and the Republican minority in the Senate, have refused to address.

Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign showed how much voters yearn for a strong and demanding leader and how powerful the presidential bully pulpit can be—not just in political terms, but by shaping the narrative, putting his pugnacious adversaries on the defensive, and mobilizing voters to demand a different approach to problem-solving. Rhetoric does not change the facts on the ground or in and of itself provide a new direction in policy. But the absence of an energized and angry president demanding better of the do-nothings in Congress can only lead to something worse.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a weekly columnist at Roll Call.