I was wading through the daily columns criticizing Barack Obama (which come from all sides these days) when I stumbled onto an intriguing piece by Michael Haydock in American History magazine.
Haydock's topic is one that is bound to be of some interest, especially to those who are promoting Obama's candidacy for re–election in 2012 — Harry Truman's upset victory over Tom Dewey in 1948.
If you aren't up to speed on 20th century American history, let me briefly recap the story for you. Sixty–three years ago this week, Truman won a presidential election that most people believed he would lose — and it has achieved something of mythical status in the years that have passed since.
Truman has become something of an inspirational figure, the political patron saint of lost causes.
I've been following political campaigns all my life, and candidates who are widely expected to lose inevitably invoke Truman's spirit in their stump speeches and exhort the faithful to go to the polls on Election Day — in spite of dire forecasts — because anything can happen.
No doubt there are many Democrats who have been demoralized by the economy and Obama's handling of it and would like to see the president pull off a similar victory a year from now — and, to be sure, there are some similarities between Obama's bid for a second term and Truman's campaign for his first full term (although there are many dissimilarities, too):
- Obama is the incumbent, as was Truman.
- Obama is a Democrat, as was Truman.
- Both presidents enjoyed large Democratic majorities in the first halves of their terms only to lose them in the midterms. Their losses in the House were almost identical (Obama, at least, retained a slim majority in the Senate; Truman lost his majority in both chambers).
- Polls in 1948 indicated more people disapproved of Truman's job performance than approved. The same is true of Obama today.
One is whether there will be a third–party candidate who might be capable of drawing votes away from either Obama or his eventual Republican challenger. When Truman was nominated by the Democrats in the summer of 1948, he was the standard bearer for a party that had won the four previous presidential campaigns with Franklin Roosevelt heading the ticket. Democrats were mostly united in those four campaigns, but, in 1948, the party gave every appearance of being splintered. Conservative Southerners, angered by the party's support for civil rights, walked out of the convention hall and proceeded to nominate South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond for the presidency. Meanwhile, the man Truman had replaced as Roosevelt's running mate in 1944, Henry Wallace, was nominated for the presidency by the Progressive Party. With the Democrats divided three ways, it was assumed by most that Dewey would glide into the presidency with the support of a united Republican Party. In fact, it was considered such a slam dunk at the time that pollsters, who were still honing their craft in 1948, stopped sampling a couple of weeks before the election — and, as a result, completely missed the last–minute movement in Truman's direction. In fairness to the pollsters, though, they weren't the only ones who believed Truman was on a quixotic quest. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I can understand why the observers of 1948 believed Truman was certain to lose — and why they were astonished when he won. Obama supporters who hope history will repeat itself in 2012 point to the fact that Truman campaigned against a "do–nothing" Republican Congress and speak of Obama doing something similar, claiming that an obstructionist Congress has been preventing him from enacting his proposals. But that's going to be a risky strategy, given Obama's reluctance to act decisively on much of anything except his health care plan when Democrats controlled both the White House and Capitol Hill — let alone after the midterms. Truman could point to a boatload of proposals he sent to the GOP–controlled Capitol Hill, proposals on which the Republicans of the time refused to act. Obama's legislative agenda since the midterms has largely been his job creation package. Truman also had the benefit of the support of Dwight Eisenhower, who would be elected president as a Republican four years later. Eisenhower was widely regarded as the man who had saved the free world during World War II, and his backing certainly must have helped Truman. I can think of no similarly beloved American figure whose support could boost Obama like that. Obama might be helped if the Republicans nominate someone who turns out to be as passionless as Dewey apparently was in 1948. Dewey had been advised to avoid making mistakes, and his campaign was the very definition of playing it safe — too safe. The texts of his campaign speeches are dull and flat — and must have seemed even moreso when Dewey recited them. His most famous statement during the campaign was "You know that your future is still ahead of you." That was about as bold as it got for him. In an editorial, the Louisville Courier–Journal wrote sneeringly of Dewey, "No presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his major speeches can be boiled down to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead." Dewey did himself no favors. The election was his to lose, and he did — in large part because he never articulated a vision for the future. It seems unlikely to me that, whoever the 2012 Republican nominee turns out to be, he or she will duplicate that mistake. The 1948 campaign also featured a new twist. If something similar presents itself in 2012, it might have an impact on the race. In 1948, movie theaters agreed to show short films produced by both campaigns. Dewey's film was made by professionals with a huge budget, but it reinforced Dewey's public image as a distant, if not disengaged, leader. The Truman staff, operating on a much smaller budget, used stock footage to create a film that reinforced the image of an active president involved in all phases of his job.
Some historians have cited the films as important factors in the outcome. I guess the thing people remember about the 1948 campaign, whether they were alive at the time or have only read about it in their history books, is the "whistle stop" train tour that Truman took, speaking to enthusiastic crowds and promising each audience that he would win the election. Maybe he truly believed that — but, if he did, he appears to have been the only one. From all accounts I have read, no one in his staff — not even his wife — believed he could overtake Dewey. When he did, he took great pleasure in flashing the infamously premature "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline that ran in the Chicago Daily Tribune the next day — and reciting the tale of hearing NBC radio commentator H. V. Kaltenborn confidently tell listeners, even late into the night on Election Day, that, although Truman did have the lead, there was no way it could hold up when the later returns came in.
There is no doubt that Truman had some good fortune during that campaign. His foreign policy was popular with the voters, and the country was emerging from a recession that saw inflation go up significantly and GDP tumble just as precariously in 1946 and 1947.
It also helped that Thurmond and Wallace did not receive as many votes as expected.
Perhaps as a side effect, Democrats recaptured both chambers of Congress.
As the saying goes, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. Truman was lucky in 1948 — lucky that he didn't have to face the voters in 1946.
It remains to be seen whether 2012 will be lucky for Obama.