Michael Bowen: Obama, Truman, and the Challenge of Running against Congress

We welcome a guest post today from Michael Bowen, author of The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party, which will be published this month. As we anticipate President Obama’s address on jobs this evening, Bowen looks back to examine some lessons from history that give insight to the challenges ahead for Obama in the 2012 election.—ellen

With his latest jobs plan to be unveiled tonight, President Obama is sending a clear challenge to House Republicans: pass my agenda or face the wrath of voters. In doing so, he seems ready to run for re-election against Congressional Republicans regardless of who the GOP nominates.

Presidential criticism of Congress during periods of divided government has been fruitful for incumbents in the past, but the White House should be aware that the political climate today is much different from that of 1948, when Harry Truman campaigned against the “Do-Nothing” 80th Congress.

Truman entered that election cycle at a decided disadvantage. Demobilization from World War II had sparked inflation, a housing shortage, and rampant labor unrest, leading to Truman’s approval sinking below 40% for much of the year. With the Democrats splintering and creating two different third parties, pundits forecast an easy win for the GOP nominee, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey.

Truman relished the underdog role and took two important steps to revive his candidacy. First, he called the Republican-controlled 80th Congress back into special session and demanded that they pass a laundry list of legislation, including bills that addressed civil rights, minimum wage, and aid to education. Second, he launched a nationwide campaign where he attacked the congressional Republicans constantly, laying the nation’s economic woes at the feet of the GOP and, by default, Dewey.

Truman’s rhetorical offensive, in which he promised to “give ’em hell” was incredibly effective largely because of Republican dysfunction. The Republicans were split between moderates under Dewey and strident conservatives led by Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft. Dewey tried to make the Republicans appear more progressive and distanced himself from the pro-business record of the GOP. Taft hoped to limit the growth of the New Deal and move back to a system of limited government. The Republican platform, drafted by the Dewey wing, included the very things Truman asked for during the special session but was completely unpalatable to the conservatives in Congress asked to implement them.

Truman capitalized on the schism in the GOP, placing the Republicans in a lose-lose situation. Had Congress put through the bills necessary to fulfill Truman’s call, the President could have argued that he was an effective leader that could whip Congress into shape and solve the nation’s current woes. If Congress took no action, as turned out to be the case, he could contend that the Republicans were unconcerned with the common man and incapable of easing their economic suffering. Truman adopted this line throughout the fall and won a surprising victory in November, widely-regarded as the most shocking upset in Presidential history.

President Obama is likely hoping for the same outcome, but the times are much different in 2011 than they were in 1948. In the late 1940s, both parties had liberal and conservative wings. Today, our parties are polarized with the Republicans unified behind an established conservative orthodoxy. Certainly there are differences of degree between candidates like Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and the long-shots in the field. There are also divisions in Congress between the Tea Party freshmen in the House and more regular Republicans, as the recent debt ceiling debacle has made clear. But these fault lines are nowhere near as wide as the gulf between Taft and Dewey. The contemporary Republican Party will be prepared to oppose a comprehensive jobs plan that emulates the approach taken in the 2009 stimulus bill. Given the promises that accompanied its passage, the GOP will have more success in blaming the President and the Democrats for the current economic malaise than their 1948 counterparts had.

A second point to consider is the state of the Senate. In 1948, the Republicans had control of both the Senate and the House. When Truman criticized Congress, he could do so with impunity because failure there was a failure for the Republicans. Today, with the Democrats controlling the Senate by three seats, President Obama should be very careful lest his attacks contribute to an anti-incumbent feeling and blow back on the seventeen Democrats running for re-election. With Senate contests in key swing states like Ohio and Florida, doing so could jeopardize Democratic control and lead to more divided government if Obama wins a second term.

Focusing on Congress indicates that President Obama’s strategy is based on history repeating itself, but it seems it will be highly unlikely that it will do so given the current state of the Republican Party.

Michael Bowen is visiting assistant professor of history at Westminster College and author of The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party. Read his previous guest post, “War on the Middle Class, Then and Now.”