What Joe Biden Can Learn From Harry Truman

His approval rating hit historic lows, his party was fractious, crises were everywhere. But Truman rescued his presidency, and his legacy.

An illustration with a black-ink sketch of Harry Truman's face blending into a smaller sketch of Joe Biden, with black-inked stars and red and blue blotches on a beige background
Jan Robert Dünnweller

The Biden administration has already zipped through two familiar stages of the modern presidency. First came the high expectations: Dreamy headlines compared Joe Biden to Franklin D. Roosevelt, an unrealistic standard for a president with the thinnest possible margin in the Senate and just a four-vote majority in the House. Then reality intruded—COVID-19 didn’t go away, inflation rose, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan was even messier than expected. Biden’s plans for social spending and voting reform were blocked by senators in his own party. This initiated the second stage: All is not lost. As a headline on a New York Times op-ed by the senior Obama adviser David Axelrod declared, “It’s Not Over for Joe Biden.”

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The president’s approval rating these days fibrillates just above 40 percent. Historically, when that number has been less than 50, the president’s party has lost an average of 37 House seats in the midterms. The next stage in the Biden presidency’s journey will undoubtedly be lighting a candle at the shrine of Harry Truman, the patron saint of presidencies stuck in the mud.

Truman, the 33rd president and the subject of Jeffrey Frank’s The Trials of Harry S. Truman, experienced two political resurrections. The first took place in 1948, just two years after Democrats endured a midterm shellacking as bad as many fear will take place in 2022. Roosevelt’s former vice president, a disappointment to party insiders and observers alike—“To err is Truman,” went the phrase—came from behind to win the election. Truman’s second revival happened after his political career was over. He left the White House in 1953 with an approval rating lower than Donald Trump’s. Historians later took fuller stock of all that he had faced during his tenure. He is now considered in the near-great presidential category, seated at awards ceremonies in the row behind Washington, Lincoln, and FDR.

Frank chooses a moment at a concession stand at the 1944 Democratic convention, in Chicago, to mark the start of Truman’s ascent to power. Managing a hot dog “dripping mustard like butterscotch sauce,” a journalist wrote, the natty former haberdasher turned senator from Independence, Missouri, was interrupted by a summons to the rostrum, where presiding officials had announced him as Roosevelt’s vice president. “By golly, that’s me!” he said, discarding the frankfurter.

The image drives home the slapdash, unlikely origins of Truman’s presidency. FDR’s deteriorating health as his fourth term approached meant that the leadership qualities of his vice president were more important than ever, but the selection process reflected the shortsighted requirements of party politics that so often influence the running-mate choice. FDR dropped his incumbent vice president, Henry Wallace, because he was too liberal for party conservatives. He couldn’t tap his preferred candidate, James F. Byrnes, a former senator from South Carolina and an administration official, because Byrnes’s uncompromisingly segregationist views made him too conservative. Truman—“The Missouri Compromise”—was somewhere in the middle. “Boys, I guess it’s Truman,” FDR said one hot July night, as if he were making a choice no more significant than to have fish rather than chicken for dinner. James Roosevelt, the president’s eldest son, said his father regarded Truman as “in no way … big enough to become president.”

When FDR died in April 1945, after Truman had spent only 82 days as the No. 2, he faced a brutal to-do list. (“I’m not big enough for this job,” Truman himself told a senator shortly after Roosevelt’s death.) He had to manage the end of the war in Europe and decide whether to use the atomic bomb to end the war in the Pacific (not to mention deal with postwar inflation, which hit a postwar high of 19.7 percent in March 1947). “I don’t know if you newspaper men ever pray,” Truman said to the press corps on his first day. “But if you do, please pray for me.” The existence of a weapon capable of destroying more life in an instant than had ever been possible took the new president by surprise: His boss hadn’t told him about it. Surprises seemed to be everywhere. “Nearly every memorandum has a catch in it,” Truman noted as he crammed late at night to get up to speed.

Truman’s crash course from 1945 onward illuminates the complexities of a job that has grown only more daunting since he held it. He knew that delegating was crucial, but also learned that subordinates—such as Byrnes, his first secretary of state, and military commanders like Douglas MacArthur—didn’t mind undercutting him if he gave them too much maneuvering room. He learned that everyone on his team was not always on the same team—his secretaries of defense and state were sometimes barely on speaking terms. Not least, he learned that many high-stakes matters were bound to elude his control, even though he was nominally the most powerful person in the world. Decisions of consequence never feature a clear-cut right choice, and many require deciding between two bad options. Truman dove in headfirst anyway. “I don’t pass the buck,” he said, “nor do I alibi out of any decision I make.”

That is an echo of his famous expression “The buck stops here,” which Truman displayed on a sign on his desk. The phrase has come to mean that presidents must take responsibility for everything that happens on their watch, but what Truman really meant illustrates a more important aspect of the job: A president must make the call when the time comes to decide. Information is bound to be incomplete; advisers have hidden motives; his party’s divisions may intrude; delay can cause disaster, but moving too quickly could mean even greater calamity.

Sometimes Truman’s best decisions were merely giving the thumbs-up to another’s idea—like Secretary of State George Marshall’s plan to bolster the European economy after the war. That might not seem hard, but a president who knows how to stay out of the way—and doesn’t demand credit—gets a lot more done. Such restraint also can deliver a vital tactical benefit. “If we try to make this a Truman accomplishment, it will sink,” the president told his White House counsel, Clark Clifford, about what would come to be known as the Marshall Plan. Facing stiff Republican opposition, an initiative named after his secretary of state would do “a whole hell of a lot better in Congress.”

Truman made his mark not just in the organization-building—both at home (the creation of the Department of Defense, the CIA, and the National Security Agency) and abroad (the creation of NATO and the United Nations)—that helped transform the global order. He also broke political norms. Where and why he did is worth revisiting during a post-Trump period when Americans are reexamining the guardrails meant to guide public life and presidential power—and when the future of the country’s political parties seems more fraught than ever. Truman did the unthinkable when he abruptly nationalized the steel industry on the eve of a strike, spoke off the cuff when presidents didn’t do that, and attacked columnists when presidents didn’t do that either. His eruptions raised questions about his temperament, yet Truman’s decision making was rooted in sturdy American ideas of character, midwestern self-reliance, and fair dealing. Not that Truman was always a Boy Scout; he was occasionally deceptive and often boasted of talking tougher than he actually did (claiming, for example, that he’d given the Russian foreign minister a “one-two to the jaw”). But the prayer he said to himself regularly while in office invoked humility, intellectual honesty, and selflessness. “Two persons are sitting at this desk,” he once told a reporter off the record. “One is Harry Truman and the other is the President of the United States, and I have to be sure that Harry Truman remembers on all occasions that the President is there too.”

This commitment to larger values helps explain how a white supremacist like Truman (who didn’t believe in interracial marriage and disapproved of lunch-counter sit-ins) could take the cause of civil rights as seriously as he did. Prompted by the brutal denial of freedom and equality to Black Americans, he pushed for anti-poll-tax and anti-lynching legislation; he signed executive orders calling for the desegregation of the federal workforce and pledging to integrate the military, moves that caused a revolt of Southern Democrats. “Here’s telling President Truman,” the editors of the Jackson Daily News wrote, “that the Democratic Party in Mississippi is through with him, now, hereafter and forever.”

Truman’s troubles with his party dovetail with a theme in Michael Kazin’s What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party. “Since its creation,” Kazin writes, “the Democratic Party has never enjoyed a prolonged period of internal bliss”—a vantage that also puts Biden’s problems with his coalition in context. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York may be at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, but a more yawning gap between figures in the party has existed before. When Truman was in office, the Democratic Party contained the segregationist Strom Thurmond (then the governor of South Carolina) and Adam Clayton Powell, “Mr. Civil Rights,” the first Black New Yorker elected to Congress. Coalitions are messy, which can make progress slow.

Kazin, who teaches history at Georgetown and is a co-editor emeritus of Dissent, does not merely aim to offer context, though. His book exhorts Democrats to reacquaint themselves with their past battles against entrenched wealth and on behalf of ordinary people. The cause of “moral capitalism,” as he calls it, thrived from the 1820s to the mid-1850s and from the 1930s to the late 1960s. And the party thrived politically too. “Eras when the Democrats argued persuasively about their commitment to make the economy serve ordinary people,” he emphasizes, “were the only periods when the party gained durable majorities.”

The presidential election of 1948 took place in the middle of that second period. Truman won by making precisely the kind of pitch that Kazin recommends. Ignoring those who doubted that he stood a chance, in early June he undertook the first of a series of train trips totaling nearly 31,000 miles, conceived as a direct appeal to farmers, workers, and ordinary Americans scared that the Depression might return. His goal was cultural cohesion—Truman had been a farmer and wowed locals by knowing how to judge the age of a horse by the arrangement of its teeth—but the president also pushed policy. In a fiery acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in July, he called the Republican-led Congress back to Washington to pass legislation that voters cared about, including a minimum-wage increase, housing assistance, and an extension of Social Security benefits. When Truman resumed his tour in the fall, at whistle-stop after whistle-stop he delivered his class-conscious message. Voters, he urged, should pull the lever for Democrats, who cared more about “the common people” than about “the interests of the men who have all the money.”

Could Joe from Scranton succeed with such an approach in 2024? It would be a very different proposition now, because the social and political structures that supported previous Democratic presidents are gone.

Truman could rely on unions and political machines. Those institutions kept party voters close, tending to members’ and constituents’ immediate needs and acting as a transmission belt for Democratic policies, making sure voters knew what the party was doing for them. (Some historians argue that this supportive tissue is what lifted Truman in 1948 and that in retrospect his victory shouldn’t be considered a surprise at all.) Now, though, machines have largely disappeared, and only one in 10 workers belongs to a union; in 1948, 31 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to a union. The connectors are gone.

Consider Biden’s expansion of the child tax credit. The measure, one study estimates, cut child poverty by about 30 percent while it was in effect, and Democrats assumed that this kind of direct assistance would energize voters. But only 47 percent of the public believes that the credit should have been extended, barely more than the 42 percent who say it shouldn’t have been. Even Democrats aren’t exactly rallying behind it; 34 percent of them are opposed, ambivalent, or unaware of it. Biden faces this problem more broadly in his party. Pushing $3 trillion in spending through Congress in two big bills in 2021, much of it aimed at Democratic priorities, isn’t winning him plaudits from a base discouraged by his inability to pass voting-rights legislation and more targeted social spending.

Kazin’s solution is to replace the organizations of the past. “Democrats will not become a ‘working class party’ or true ‘party of the people’ again,” he writes, “unless they help build and support strong institutions of ordinary Americans to become potent forces in a broader coalition.” The Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America, founded after Barack Obama’s inauguration, offers a recent model of the grassroots mobilizing he has in mind, but as Kazin himself illustrates, OFA also exposes the model’s challenges. It thrived on passion for Obama but withered when it wasn’t linked to his stardom. Sustaining community organizations and energy on the tenets of moral capitalism, rather than on inspirational personality, is hard—especially when the foot soldiers who excitedly pounded yard signs confront the deflating reality of politics and stymied progress.

What’s more, rallying Democrats around the idea of moral capitalism would mean surmounting skepticism within party ranks about an expanded role for government. A recent Pew survey found that when Democrats were asked if government services should be greatly increased, 63 percent of the progressive left wing of the party—which makes up 12 percent of the whole—said yes. Among the rest of the coalition (the other 88 percent of the party), only a third endorsed an expansion.

Not least among the obstacles to the revival of moral capitalism is the staggering, and growing, expense of elections. (The average amount raised to run for a House seat has increased by more than 60 percent over the past decade, and now stands at almost $2.7 million. The figure for a Senate race is nearly $9.6 million, an increase of more than 200 percent.) To pay the bills, a national party requires donors with ready cash, but those donors tend to be more closely aligned with—or belong to—the elites with concentrated wealth. They’re the people, in other words, whom Kazin views as worthy targets of moral capitalism.

Kazin may not dive into all these challenges, but he is well aware of the party’s shortcomings. At times, he sounds like a reluctant Democrat, not because he is tempted by the other major party, but because he has been let down so often by his own. Still, he remains certain that it is the only electoral institution in America that has the muscle memory necessary to solve the challenges of the moment—from inequality to environmental collapse.

His hope—his plea—is that the Democrats, however frustrated they feel, are inspired by social crisis to become newly conscious of their party’s history and its obligations. The message of his book is also the message of the Truman presidency: No matter how dark things get, Democrats cannot afford to reach the surrender stage. At the party’s convention in 1948, where some delegates waved placards that read We’re Just Mild About Harry, the underdog candidate put the message in terms blunter than any modern president would dare echo, though a beleaguered Biden might well wish he could. “If voters don’t do their duty by the Democratic Party,” Truman said, “they are the most ungrateful people in the world.”

This article appears in the April 2022 print edition with the headline “The Patron Saint of Stuck Presidencies.”