For Obama, will it be Truman or Clinton?

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 9:01 PM

In the weeks after his election two years ago, President Obama was often linked to two other presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Today, Democrats debate whether he should act more like Harry Truman or Bill Clinton to avoid becoming another Jimmy Carter.

Those early associations partly reflected the fact that Obama was coming to office at a time of great national problems, with an economy as weak as any since the Great Depression.

They were fed by Obama's habit of looking to Lincoln, a fellow Illinoisan, for inspiration - though he resisted direct comparisons - right down to the decision to follow the route of Lincoln's final train ride into the capital before his inauguration.

But the comparisons with two of America's greatest presidents also reflected the wildly inflated expectations that accompanied him into the Oval Office. After two difficult years, those are gone for now. Obama now has to fend off suggestions that, like Carter, he is in danger of being a one-term president.

But is it Truman or Clinton who provides the better alternative model? Both of those former Democratic presidents suffered major defeats in their first midterm elections. Truman's Democrats lost 55 House seats in 1946, while Clinton's party lost 54 House seats in 1994. Both came back to win two years later.

Democrats are divided over many things, including which president Obama should emulate as he decides how to respond to the thrashing he and his party suffered in last month's midterms.

Right now there is little goodwill on the left toward the president. Liberals are up in arms amid talk of compromise on extending the George W. Bush tax cuts for all Americans, rather than allowing rates to rise for the wealthiest. They see Obama today as weak, vacillating and lacking either convictions or the gumption to fight for the principles they believe got him elected. They want a fighter in the White House who will put the Republicans in their place.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), an unabashed liberal, was quoted last week as saying that if Obama caves on tax cuts, "he's going to have a lot of swimming upstream" to do. Liberal blogger Jane Hamsher accused Obama of "cynical charades" in his discussions about a compromise on tax cuts and unemployment insurance. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called Obama's freeze on federal workers' pay "transparently cynical."

But other Democrats see dangers in a strategy of confrontation and argue that an alternative approach can win back the independent Democrats lost last month.

Liberals may be disillusioned, but they still voted for Democrats in the midterms. Independents defected in significant numbers. Many are worried about the president's policies, and many think he has failed to fulfill his promise to reduce partisanship and change the way Washington works. They want results and expect cooperation between the parties.

What is the right strategy for Obama to regain the political initiative and put his presidency back on track? Should he hold firm, push a liberal agenda and provoke fights with the Republicans, as Truman did? That would reenergize his liberal base and sharpen his profile with the public.

Or should he be a conciliator, as Clinton tried to be, cooperating when possible with congressional Republicans but resisting when he believes they have gone too far right? That might show the Republicans as obstructionists and bring independents back to his side heading toward 2012.

Truman came out of the 1946 election dramatically weakened, regarded almost as an interim president. But he was unbowed. "I'm doing as I damn please for the next two years and to hell with all of them," he wrote to his wife, Bess, according to David McCullough's biography, "Truman."

His 1947 State of the Union speech struck notes of conciliation with the Republicans. Over time, however, he chose confrontation with the GOP Congress. His veto of the Taft-Hartley labor law cheered liberals, even as it was overridden by the Republicans. Although he would continue to have difficult relations with the liberals in his party, the Progressive magazine wrote of that veto, "Mr. Truman has reached the crucial fork in the road and turned unmistakably to the left."

Truman's 1948 State of the Union address set out a bold, progressive legislative agenda that included national health insurance, more money for education and agriculture, a hike in the minimum wage and more housing assistance. He followed that with a message on civil rights. When Republicans balked, he ran against the "do-nothing Congress" and won an upset victory over Thomas Dewey.

Clinton took another course. His failed attempt to enact health-care reform and his support for a tax increase early in his presidency stamped him as a big-government Democrat. In the aftermath of the 1994 Republican landslide, Clinton sought to move back to the center, closer to his roots as a New Democrat. He triangulated between congressional Republicans and the liberal wing of his party.

After his defeat, he was morose, he was angry, and he looked for advice wherever he could get it, reaching beyond his inner circle. By the time of his State of the Union in 1995, he had begun to find the path out of his troubles. That speech included self-deprecating humor and a call for lowered temperatures and bipartisanship.

"If we agree on nothing else tonight, we must agree that the American people certainly voted for change in 1992 and in 1994," he told the members of Congress. "I know how some of you must have felt in 1992. I must say that in both years we didn't hear America singing, we heard America shouting. And now all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, must say: 'We hear you. We will work together.' "

The speech was widely panned by the pundits - it was too long, they said, too unfocused, too, well, Clintonesque. It wasn't until the tragedy of the Oklahoma City bombings and Clinton's well-regarded speech afterward that his presidency seemed to regain momentum. But inside the White House, and particularly in Clinton's mind, the turnaround began with that State of the Union address.

Obama is now at the stage of redirecting his presidency. The negotiations in the lame-duck session over tax cuts, unemployment insurance and the New START treaty are mere prelude to the main events of next year. Obama's next State of the Union address will mark the beginning of the next chapter. Between now and then he must decide what strategy he will employ to put that presidency back on track.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company