What Obama Can Learn From Harry Truman

The president needs to get angry. Eloquently angry.

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It has by now largely faded from living memory, but in its time, and for perhaps half a century thereafter, Truman's surprise victory in the 1948 presidential election was a recurrent meme for countless self-deluded losers. It was a unique event, a genuine one-off without precedent or progeny -- Truman had been so far behind that the Gallup Organization actually stopped polling in late summer -- but that didn't stop later candidates trailing in the polls from invoking its misleading example. But it isn't that aspect of things, its astonishing come-from-way-behind finish, that I'm referencing here.

Although, truth be told, it might not be an irrelevant consideration. Barack Obama has had a very bad fortnight, and I'd hazard that, for the first time since his inauguration, his chances of re-election stand at less than fifty percent. But it's still early days, he's still leading in the polls against all likely opponents, and anyone offering a firm prediction more than fifteen months ahead of time is probably deluded.

Nevertheless, the president does appear a diminished figure nowadays. The impression was decisively crystallized by Drew Westen's piece in the New York Times the Sunday before last, which both confirmed and hastened a change in the prevailing political atmospherics.  But what ultimately triggered his reduced stature, or at least sealed its perception, has to be the debt ceiling deal that concluded the preceding week. Not so much its substance, a temporizing stop-gap that satisfied no one but at least forestalled catastrophe. No, it was, rather, the feckless, ineffectual, and all too accommodating way the White House responded to the crazies in the Republican House caucus. Their approach placated no Republicans, who hate the president and everything he does, even when it's what they've demanded he do; but it did succeed in alienating his natural supporters. At a certain point, it was evident to everyone who was paying attention, Democrat, Republican, and independent, that the Republicans were unwilling (the Tea Party faction) or unable (the leadership, beleaguered by the Tea Party faction) to cut a meaningful deal. But Obama, looking ever more desperate, kept trying. And in the process kept demonstrating a willingness to curtail programs that should never have been in play. Was he the only person in the entire country who believed the other side was negotiating in good faith? At some point along the way, the Republicans concluded -- as how could they not? -- that this is a president who can be rolled.

They judged that they could win even though their bottom-line position was indefensible on its face. After eight years of squandering a surplus and racking up record deficits, they now suddenly determined that deficits were destroying the country. But despite this, and despite the fact that income disparity is now greater than it has been at any time since the late 1920s, greater than that of any other advanced industrialized nation, and despite the fact that middle class income has been effectively stagnant for the past 30 years while the richest 1 percent have grown ever richer, and despite the fact that the Bush tax cuts took $2 trillion out of the public coffers, and despite the fact that, as Drew Westen recounted in his New York Times piece, 400 people now control more of the country's wealth than 150 million others, despite all that, the Republican caucus categorically refused to consider one penny of tax increases for even the wealthiest Americans. This position can no longer be considered economics, and it can't even be considered politics. It's more like religious dogma. And it isn't only absurd, it's obscene.

And it's not only liberal Democrats like me who think so. Nor even only liberal Democrats and middle-of-the-road independents. Recent polling shows that a majority of Republicans support a tax hike as part of a deficit-reduction package. The tail truly is wagging the dog. A president needs to do more than merely mitigate the worst of this; a president needs to try to explain what's at stake and stop the madness in its tracks.

During the 2008 campaign, I had a lively ongoing email argument with Maureen Dowd. She felt Obama was being insufficiently feisty in his responses to the outrageous, dishonest, and frequently covertly racist attacks against him, whereas I felt, although I shared her frustration, that he probably knew what he was doing, that he had learned in the course of a complicated lifetime how he could best deal with contentiousness and acrimony without alienating potential allies. I might still feel the same way, in retrospect, about the 2008 campaign. But I sure as hell don't feel that way about the current situation.

And that's where Harry Truman comes in. Like Obama, Truman had suffered a resounding defeat in the 1946 Congressional elections. In fact, it was even worse for him; he lost control of both the House and the Senate. And like Obama, he confronted an emboldened Republican Congress that refused to pass his program (and unlike Obama, he had several of his vetoes overridden). And when he ran for re-election, here's what he didn't do: talk about amity and compromise and cooperation. The other side wasn't interested, and Truman knew it. So what he did was draw clear lines and make a principled fight.

Here are a few excerpts from his acceptance speech at the Philadelphia convention that nominated him:

Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make those Republicans like it... We will do that because they are wrong and we are right... [T]he people know the Democratic Party is the people's party, and the Republican Party is the party of special interests and it always has been and always will be... The Republican Party... favors the privileged few and not the common, every-day man.  Ever since its inception that Party has been under the control of special privilege, and they concretely proved it in the 80th Congress.  They proved it by the things they did to the people and not for them. They proved it by the things they failed to do.

The diction is not Barack Obama's, obviously, and I suppose we might also say it's neither presidential nor especially dignified. I certainly wouldn't expect or want our current president to talk like that. But I think he does need to get angry. Eloquently angry. There's plenty for him to get angry about. He needs to fight. He needs to stand for something, and to be seen to stand for something. And damn it, if he were just to take aim at the other side, they've made themselves such big fat tempting targets, they'd be almost impossible to miss. But he has to be willing to do it. He has to say what he's for, and he has to say what he's against.

The question is, does he have the temperament? Or has a lifetime of ameliorating and assuaging incapacitated him when he's facing enemies bent on his destruction?

Image Credit: Jason Reed/Reuters