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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Dewey Defeats Truman

Obama’s Model – Not 1994, but 1948

November 2nd will be long remembered for “the shellacking,” as Barack Obama put it, that he and Democrats took in the mid-term elections. It was a near historic rout often compared to the thumping Bill Clinton and Democrats took in 1994. But the election Obama ought to be studying for clues to his comeback in two years time is not ’94, but Harry Truman’s spectacular return from political death on another November 2nd in 1948.

Like Obama after last week’s election, Truman seemed like a dead man walking after the 1946 mid-terms. Republicans captured both houses of Congress, gaining 55 seats in the House and a dozen in the Senate, including the election of very conservative Republicans like Joseph McCarthy in Wisconsin, Zales Ecton in Montana and Henry Dworshak in Idaho. No question, 1946 was a banner year for the GOP. The big Republican win came with, and in part as a result of, Truman’s popularity being in the ditch. By election time, the President’s approval rating had slumped to 32%.

As Truman’s best biographer David McCullough has written: “According to one of the latest Washington jokes in the autumn of 1946, Truman was late for a Cabinet meeting because he woke up stiff in the joints from trying to put his foot in his mouth.”

Another line held that “to err is Truman.”

The Democratic defeat was so massive in 1946 and Truman’s role in bringing it about so obvious, that first -term Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright actually suggested that Truman, with no vice president to replace him, should resign the presidency after appointing respected Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg Secretary of State. Vandenberg would then become President and would be able to avoid what Fulbright saw as the fearsome prospect of divided government presided over by a hugely unpopular chief executive. Truman responded by forever referring to Fulbright as “Halfbright” and instead he came out fighting.

The seeds of Obama’s resurrection from the shellacking of the 2010 mid-terms may reside in Truman’s response 64 years ago. Truman doubled down on the Republicans, challenged them to enact their plans; plans strikingly similar to today – spending reductions, dismantling various social programs and opposition to national health care reform. No one – except Harry Truman – thought he could win in 1948, but he did and convincingly. Truman delighted in the fact that the very conservative Chicago Tribune got the election outcome wrong in its famous headline – Dewey Defeats Truman.

As Frank Rich noted in the New York Times Sunday, Obama can make a virtue, if he will, of the obvious and soon to grow splits in Republican ranks. In other words, he needs to shift the focus from his agenda to the new Republican agenda.

If the darlings of the Tea Party – Michelle Bachmann and Jim DeMint – really want, as Bachmann says, “to wean the country off Social Security and Medicare,” perhaps Obama should challenge them to bring forth the legislation. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell say they want to repeal the health care legislation and the President should welcome the discussion as the best chance he’ll have to reframe the national debate to make the case, in personal terms, that he has yet to make for the controversial legislation.

Obama needs to get out a Glenn Beck-style blackboard in the Roosevelt Room and explain how the GOP wants to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans by borrowing the money from China in order to keep putting the cash in Donald Trump’s or Michael Bloomberg’s pockets.

Every Tea Partier and Congressional Republican, and most Democrats, want to cut spending. OK, where and when do we start? The first qualifier when the talk turns to spending cuts is usually to take defense, homeland security and entitlements off the budget chopping block. That leaves about 15 cents of every dollar the federal government spends eligible for cuts. Obama should ask, where do we start? Student loans? The National Parks? Maybe raising the retirement age to 70 or eliminating the Department of Education? Maybe we ditch the new generation of littoral fighting ships the Navy desperately wants. That would save a cool $8 billion. Let’s really have the debate.

In his re-election in 1948 after his disastrous shellacking two years earlier, Harry Truman called the GOP bluff. As he suspected, the Republican’s ability to enact their program was much more limited than their ability to criticize Truman’s performance. Specifics and a lack of performance by the GOP eventually won out over hyperbole.

There is at least one other reason why Barack Obama should engage the new crowd in Congress directly on their ideas: the country desperately needs an adult conversation about priorities, spending, the deficit, the defense budget and entitlements. What better time to have it?

For two years, Obama’s operated his presidency in an often detached and dispassionate way. His White House seems to be all tactics, no overarching vision. Unless he provides that vision – and one way he can begin is to aggressively engage the Michelle Bachmann’s, Jim DeMint’s and Rand Paul’s of the new Congress – he will be a one-term president and, even worse, the great and serious debate the country needs about its priorities will disintegrate into a black swamp of politics as usual played out in dueling soundbites on Fox and MSNBC.

In David McCullough’s Truman, the superb Pulitzer Prize-winning story of the fighter from Missouri, the chapter on the 1948 election concludes with the analysis of Clark Clifford, Truman’s chief aide and strategist during that historic election.

“He was a good politician,” Clifford said of Truman, “a sensible politician…But that wasn’t why he was elected President…it was the remarkable courage in the man – his refusal to be discouraged, his willingness to go through the suffering of that campaign, the fatigue, the will to fight every step of the way, the will to win…

“It wasn’t Harry Truman the politician who won, it was Harry Truman the man.”

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