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Harry S Truman was only in office a year before his Democrats stumbled in midterm elections. He had the last laugh, though, when he, and Congressional Democrats, won big in 1948.
Harry S Truman was only in office a year before his Democrats stumbled in midterm elections. He had the last laugh, though, when he, and Congressional Democrats, won big in 1948. Library of Congress
Three times in the past century, a sitting president's party has lost its majority in at least one house of Congress. And all three times, the president went on to win re-election — Harry Truman in 1948, Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 and Bill Clinton in 1996.
So if, as expected, the GOP takes the House this Election Day, the news isn't all bad for President Obama's re-election hopes.
Truman took office in 1945, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death in office. A year later, his Democrats lost the majority.
But two years after that, Truman decided to run against what he called the "Do Nothing Congress." He gave a speech at the 1948 Democratic Convention that was nowhere near conciliatory — it was an all-out assault on Capitol Hill Republicans.
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Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of three 20th century presidents to lose control of Congress in the first midterm after he took office but then win re-election.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of three 20th century presidents to lose control of Congress in the first midterm after he took office but then win re-election. Fabian Bachrach/Library of Congress
"Now my friends, with the help of God and the wholehearted push which you can put behind this campaign," Truman said, "we can save this country from a continuation of the 80th Congress, and from misrule from now on. I must have your help. You must get in and push, and win this election. The country can't afford another Republican Congress."
Truman's strategy worked. He was re-elected, and Democrats swept back into control of Congress.
The story was the same for Eisenhower.
In the 1954 midterms, Democrats edged ahead in both houses of Congress. So in 1956, Eisenhower pointed out the differences between what he was offering and what Democrats were. And the country agreed, keeping him in office for another four years, although Democrats kept thin majorities in the House and Senate.
Clinton Was A Good Rebounder, Too
The last time this happened was in 1994. Clinton was in his second year in the White House, and the midterms gave his party a stinging defeat.
On Nov. 8, 1994, Mark Gearan was at the White House watching the election returns on TV. At the time, he was President Clinton's director of communications.
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Bill Clinton's Democrats lost the House in 1994, but he went on to a rousing re-election in 1996.
Bill Clinton's Democrats lost the House in 1994, but he went on to a rousing re-election in 1996. Library of Congress
In the days leading up to the election, neither Gearan nor anyone else on the Clinton White House staff predicted that the margin would be as big as it ended up.
"Throughout the day," Gearan tells NPR's Guy Raz, "you could see a building momentum, if you will, for the change election that it turned out to be."
The Republican sweep of 1994 was decisive, and Clinton had to think long and hard about what to do.
That following January, Clinton decided that his first State of the Union address to the new Republican Congress was going to be conciliatory. He would try to work with Republicans rather than against them.
"Certainly the State of the Union was a moment when it's very visible," Gearan says. "The hype was significant, the chamber was so obviously weighted and the tableau of who was sitting behind him — all those elements were certainly historic and momentous."
But two years later, like Truman and Eisenhower, Clinton was able to convince the public that the problem in Washington was Congress — and not him.
After The Wave This Time
Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, has been studying the presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower and Clinton carefully.
And now he's focused on denying re-election to Obama. His strategy: Pursue an agenda that any future GOP presidential nominee can embrace in 2012.
That's according to Major Garrett, congressional correspondent for the National Journal. Garrett, who recently interviewed McConnell for the magazine, tells Raz that the senator plans to put his agenda into action by "preaching and teaching" to the new House Republicans.
"Say 'Look, we have structural impediments to doing the kinds of things that you want to accomplish. Now, you can stand here and be frustrated and give all sorts of fiery speeches on the floor, make yourself a momentary figure of national attention but ultimately lose. If you don't take a step-by-step building block approach to this ... you're going to risk losing the gains you've made.' "
Garrett says McConnell plans to stand up to Tea Party Republicans and their approach to politics. Democrats in the Senate, at least will be at an even bigger risk two years from now: They'll have 21 Senate seats at risk; the Republicans will have only 10.
"You have a lot more races that are up," Garrett says. "You have a lot more money that you have to raise, a lot more money that you have to spend, and you have a lot more targets."