Weekly Standard: Why Truman Can't Save Obama In the weeks leading up to reelection, presidential comparisons are inevitable. But can Barack Obama lead by Harry Truman's example? The Weekly Standard's Jay Cost argues that the current president isn't quite as audacious as Truman was.
NPR logo Weekly Standard: Why Truman Can't Save Obama

Weekly Standard: Why Truman Can't Save Obama

President Barack Obama walks alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel past a portrait of former President Harry Truman in the White House on June 7, 2011. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama walks alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel past a portrait of former President Harry Truman in the White House on June 7, 2011.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Jay Cost is a staff writer for The Weekly Standard.

It's often been said that Barack Obama is an audacious leader. But perhaps it's better to consider the possibility that he is just a politician who lacks a sense of irony, at least when it comes to himself. For example, last weekend in Detroit, the president said:

"The time for Washington games is over. The time for action is now. No more manufactured crises. No more games. Now is not the time for the people you sent to Washington to worry about their jobs; now is the time for them to worry about your jobs."

This would perhaps be a bold statement had it not been delivered at a veritable carnival of political gamesmanship – a huge labor meet-up in Detroit obviously designed to rally union support for the president in advance of the 2012 campaign.

That's Obama: concomitantly embracing and decrying the American political process – that's been his shtick since his 2004 "Red State/Blue State address." It speaks to his essential quality: He is a politician who wants to believe that he is not a politician.

Over the years, we've had other presidents with similar views of themselves – such as Jimmy Carter and Harry Truman. Like Obama, both of them felt deep down that they were not really politicians, which was why they both could sometimes brew an equally "audacious" mix of hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

It's obvious that Truman has been on Obama's mind of late, as the current chief executive actually mentioned his predecessor in his Detroit remarks. Indeed, it's been clear for some time that the White House plans to re-run Truman's 1948 campaign, which makes some sense. For starters, a "Give 'em Hell" campaign against a "Do Nothing" Congress suits Obama's personality just fine, as it does not require him to accept any blame for what's gone wrong with the country. Instead, he'll just do what he's been doing for years now – throwing all the responsibility on to George W. Bush and the Tea Party.

Beyond that, Truman is the only president to have been reelected during anything approaching the awful conditions of today. He took office during the particularly nasty recession of 1945, which came about because of the tough conversion from a wartime to peacetime economy. By the middle of 1947, growth had returned, but it did not last very long, slowing markedly in the second half of 1948 as farm income in particular took a hit. By 1949, the country was back in recession.

Despite this, Truman managed to secure reelection, so it's not hard to see why Obama finds this so appealing. With the country seemingly headed for a double-dip recession, just like in the late 1940s, the Truman strategy gives the president at least a hope of reelection.

Or so it seems. I think that on further analysis, it turns out to be a false hope.

Truman went around the country during the 1948 campaign blasting the GOP for threatening all the popular Democratic reforms of the past decade. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the National Labor Relations Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and of course Social Security – all these programs and more would be threatened if those dastardly Republicans got their hands on the government! The message here was clear: The economy might be headed back into recession, so you don't want to endanger all those important programs the Democrats designed to protect you during economically challenging times.

So why won't this work for Obama? Let's answer this with a question: what's the most recent, popular Democratic social welfare program? Medicare, which is now 46 years old. Obama can't go around the country pointing to all the popular Democratic programs the GOP are going to take away because there are no popular Democratic programs, at least none that are less than a generation old.

In fact, the party's only substantial domestic achievement since the Beatles broke up is Obamacare, which is massively unpopular. The RealClearPolitics average has the bill pulling in just 36 percent support, while the recent Fox News poll found approval for Obama on the health care issue at a measly 41 percent. So, Truman could tour the country saying that a vote for Dewey would destroy the New Deal, but Obama can't go around saying that a vote for Perry or Romney will destroy Obamacare because that might actually help the GOP nominee!

Broadly speaking, Truman could win amid tough times in 1948 because the country had confidence in the Democratic party's ability to govern. That simply does not exist today, which is why the Truman model won't work for Obama.

Instead, it looks more and more like Obama is actually going to run Carter's 1980 campaign. Sure, he has nothing popular to show for his four years in office, but he's still better than the out-and-out radical the GOP just nominated. Will that work for Obama?

Well ... did it work for Carter?