President Obama may be enduring a summer from hell as his approval numbers head south along with an economy on the brink of a double dip recession. But according to Norman Ornstein there is no need for Democrats to despair. Writing in the New Republic, the veteran think tank scribe says there is a clear precedent for Obama’s re-election: Harry Truman’s victory in 1948. Orenstein believes all we have to do is substitute Obama for Truman and the current GOP-controlled House of Representatives for the “do nothing” 80th Congress that FDR’s successor used as a punching bag on his way to re-election and you have formula for Democratic success.
Though the analogy breaks down in other ways the biggest problem with this scenario is that Barack Obama is not Harry Truman.
The superficial similarity between 1948 and 2012 is that the prior midterm elections resulted in sweeping victories for a Republican party at the expense of Democrats who were led by an incumbent president.
Analogies between different eras are always deceiving but none more so than between our time and that of Truman. The political landscape of 1948 was still one in which the Democrats had natural advantages that neither party could claim today. Orenstein is right when he says the GOP misread its 1946 triumph. Republicans thought the public was rejecting the New Deal and all the Democrats had accomplished under Franklin Roosevelt. But it was instead a more limited reaction to the postwar situation. But only 16 years after Herbert Hoover’s defeat, the country was not ready to trust the Republicans. The New Deal coalition was still very much in place and along with the unions that were a major political force, Democrats were able to win back in 1948 everything they lost two years before. It would be another two decades before that coalition would finally splinter and two more after that until the Democratic stranglehold on Congress would be irrevocably broken.
But while 1948 was a reaction to what was perceived as overreach by a GOP Congress, it must be understood that the current Republican-controlled House was the result of the country rejecting Democratic overreach on the part of the president. Congress is, if anything, more unpopular than Obama, and the president will, no doubt, seek to run against it, the Tea Party and conservatives in general. But that will only work so long as the issue is not his leadership and the measures such as Obamacare that, with the help of a Democratic Congress, he was able to ram down the country’s throat. The Truman victory restored the status quo. An Obama victory would be a vote for his radical agenda and failed leadership. Voters weren’t personally rejecting Truman in 1946 as much as they were Obama in 2010.
Most importantly, those who look to 1948 must also concede that Obama is no Truman. Truman was a feisty man of the people took easily to the role of battling underdog. Obama may have many gifts but his arrogance and his enormous self-regard make him ill suited to take plays from Truman’s playbook.
While those who completely write off an incumbent president’s chances 14 months before he faces the voters are probably jumping to conclusions, President Obama is a very different sort of leader than the 33rd president and he has problems that a Truman-style whistle stop campaign can’t fix.