1948, and All That

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 10, 2011

Anytime an incumbent President starts citing Dewey v. Truman for inspiration, you know that said incumbent President is in trouble. Now that the White House has become distinctly Trumanesque, it is time to ask just how much comfort they can take in the thought that President Obama will give his opponents Hell, or even Heck.

As Jay Cost points out, it will be very difficult for this President to imitate Harry Truman and get the same results that Truman got:

Obama will have some substantial challenges in pursuing this approach. For starters, the Republican nominee would have to behave like Dewey, who overlearned the lessons of 1944. Dewey had been the GOP nominee against FDR that year, too, and was criticized for running too tough a campaign during wartime. So in 1948 he hung back, limiting himself to only the vaguest pronouncements on the stump, thereby enabling Truman to dominate the conversation. There’s virtually no chance that the 2012 GOP nominee will be so accommodating.

An even larger problem for the Obama administration is the policy context. The public in 1948 remembered fondly the farm supports, banking regulations, and social welfare provisions of the New Deal, to say nothing of success in World War II, and Truman could draw upon this deep reservoir of trust in what the government had done for the country over the last two decades. Such trust does not exist today; instead, the number of people who are skeptical of the government’s competence is at an all-time high. Worse, the main achievement of the current administration—Obamacare—is deeply unpopular, favored by less than 40 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics average of recent polling. And for good reason: Credible reports from nonpartisan agencies like the Congressional Budget Office and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services predict that under Obamacare millions of people will lose their current insurance, pay higher premiums, and may even see their doctors stop accepting Medicare patients.

In other words, Truman could argue in 1948 that a vote for the Republicans would threaten the social welfare system the country knew and approved; but in 2012 the Republican nominee will be the one who can argue that a vote for Obama will endanger that system.

I continue to think that the President’s re-election chances are better than many make them out to be, as it is very difficult to unseat a sitting President (especially one who does not have to undergo a challenge for re-nomination), and as the Republican Presidential field may still prove itself weak. But the days of viewing Barack Obama as a political titan are clearly over, and if any further shocks are administered to the political system, this President’s re-election chances will likely be sunk.

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