Progressives have yearned for President Obama to follow Harry Truman’s strategy from the 1948 campaign by giving his Republican opponents hell. Now that Obama is doing just that, his critics say he’s not looking presidential.
As a longtime advocate of the Truman approach (and a fan of Give ’Em Hell Harry and his way of doing politics), I think Obama is doing the right thing. Critics of the battling style miss what Obama needs to get done in this campaign and also ignore the extent to which so many of his foes refuse to treat him in a presidential way. Far better for him to be a fully engaged fighter with passion for what he’s saying than a distant, regal figure pretending that the other side is playing by a dainty set of rules.
But if 1948 is to be the model, what can we learn from Truman’s experience, and how does that election relate to the one we’re having in 2012?
The similarities are important. Truman in 1946, like Obama in 2010 (and, for that matter, Bill Clinton in 1994), suffered a severe setback in midterm elections that substantially strengthened the hands of his congressional adversaries. Truman’s opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, was a Northeastern Republican governor who, like Mitt Romney, was not a favorite of the most conservative wing of his party. But unlike Romney, Dewey was a genuine moderate trying hard not be ensnared in the agenda of the GOP Congress.
For Truman, tying the “do-nothing” Republican Congress around Dewey’s neck was essential to reminding the many New Dealers in the electorate of the identity of FDR’s true heir. Dewey spent the whole campaign in a box. If he danced away from congressional Republicans, he looked unprincipled. If he embraced them, he put himself right where Truman wanted him.
To the extent that Romney can be tied to an unpopular Republican House and an obstructionist minority in the Senate, their unpopularity will rub off on him. But unlike Dewey, Romney has largely endorsed his congressional colleagues’ agenda. Obama’s task is to argue that whatever moderate sounds Romney made during his career in Massachusetts politics, these are irrelevant to how he would govern with the GOP likely to be in the congressional saddle. Obama wants to paint Romney as someone who would be a pawn of a runaway right-wing Congress, thus challenging both Romney’s strength of conviction and his ideology. As Truman did with Dewey, Obama wants to offer Romney the unpalatable choice of offending his party or offending swing voters.
There is also an advantage in Obama directly taking on Romney’s background in private equity at Bain Capital. By raising these questions himself, Obama signaled that he would not let criticisms from such Democrats as NewarkMayor Cory Booker force him to back down from a challenge he knows he needs to lodge against Romney’s claims as a “job creator.” By the end of last week, Booker had eased off while the Bain issue was still alive, to the point that even Rush Limbaugh was forced to acknowledge that private equity was about profit-making, not job creation.
And if Republicans wish to argue that Obama’s vigorous anti-Romney campaigning is un-presidential, they have to answer for George W. Bush’s unashamed attacks against Democrat John Kerry in 2004. Sara Fagen, an adviser to Bush in that campaign, recently told Peter Baker of the New York Times that Bush “almost never mentioned” Kerry, “certainly not this early.”
The truth of this depends on what the meaning of the word “almost” is. In February 2004, for example, Bush mocked Kerry — he referred to him as “one senator from Massachusetts” — as being “for tax cuts and against them. For NAFTA and against NAFTA. For the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act. In favor of liberating Iraq and opposed to it.” The next month, Bush accused Kerry by name of being “willing to gut the intelligence services” with a “deeply irresponsible” proposal to cut intelligence spending. There is no record of Republicans complaining that these political assaults were beneath a president.
Like Truman — and, for that matter, like Bush — Obama confronts a sharply divided country, the need to rally his own supporters and the imperative of convincing undecided voters that electing his opponent would be a dangerous risk. What Truman taught is that Americans would rather see a president with the strength to fight than a politician with such sensitive sensibilities that he leaves all the tough stuff to others.