Give 'Em Hell, Barry: What Barack Obama Can Learn from Harry Truman's Inspired Use of Partisanship

Article excerpt

When President Barack Obama took office, at a time of grave financial crisis and disgraced laissez-faire economics, many of us hoped that he would be the next Franklin D. Roosevelt. That hope, to put it mildly, has not materialized. In fairness to Obama, he took office while the crisis was still deepening. FDR, by contrast, was inaugurated after the depression had festered and Republicans had dithered for more than three years, creating a popular mandate for more drastic change.

But if Obama is not destined to be the next Roosevelt, he can choose from one of two very different presidential role models, Harry Truman or Bill Clinton. When Clinton lost his congressional majority in the 1994 midterm elections, he moved emphatically to the center. He saved his own presidency by positioning himself almost as a president above party--the famed strategy of "triangulation." But he did a lot of damage to Democrats along the way, suggesting that they were somehow too left-wing for the country.

Truman took a different route. When Republican obstruction of his policies was unrelenting and his own popularity was near an all-time low, he recovered by becoming an effective partisan and a resolute progressive. He not only saved his own presidency in the great election upset of 1948 but enabled Democrats to take back Congress in one of the largest vote swings in American political history. With the 1948 election, the House went from 246 Republicans and 188 Democrats to 263 Democrats and 171 Republicans, a net pickup of 75 seats for the Democrats.

Today, Republicans have made clear that they will settle for nothing less than the destruction of the Obama presidency. The common ground that Obama has sought is not to be had. But even as Obama is belatedly rejecting the illusion of bipartisanship, the usual suspects are urging him to move closer to the GOP. Doug Schoen, one of the architects of Clinton's triangulation, recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "It is a profound mistake to believe that the Democratic resurgence and President Barack Obama's election were a validation or an endorsement of a return to big government and Democratic liberalism." Instead, Schoen commended to Obama the example of Clinton, who adopted "the bulk of the Republican ideas on taxes, spending and welfare reform in 1996."

That's one way to save a Democratic presidency--some would say, why bother? But mercifully, it is not the only way. Obama could learn a lot from Truman.

HARRY S. TRUMAN WAS FIRST ELECTED to the Senate in 1934 as a product of Kansas City's corrupt Pendergast machine. As a senator from border-state Missouri, Truman during the 1930s tacked back and forth between supporting Roosevelt's New Deal and occasionally siding with Southerners and Republicans who opposed it. He first came to national prominence as head of the wartime Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, soon known simply as the Truman Committee.

The committee's investigations of waste and corruption in military contracts saved the taxpayers an estimated $15 billion. Truman's role gave him his first populist edge as the scourge of corrupt war profiteers. The Truman Committee investigated shoddy contractors whose negligence had cost the lives of American servicemen, scandals immortalized in Arthur Miller's All My Sons.

In that era, despite the overwhelming popularity of President Roosevelt, other party figures had far more influence than their counterparts do today. Vice President Henry Wallace, a darling of the labor left but a quirky personality, had managed to alienate key figures in Congress, the administration, and the Democratic Party. By early 1944, it was clear that he would be dumped at the party's July nominating convention. The segregationist Sen. Jimmy Byrnes of South Carolina seemed to be the front-runner to replace Wallace, but the party's liberal and labor leaders made it clear that they could not live with him. …