The president was fighting for reelection. Eyebrows were raised about his older vice presidential nominee. And his opponent, a Northeastern governor, had a good shot at unseating him. Harder still, he faced Republican opponents in Congress who had ousted his allies two years earlier and were denying him the legislative victories he craved.
Harry Truman and Barack Obama couldn’t be more different, and 1948 is not 2012, but that long ago time when television was new and conventions really mattered offers some instructive lessons. Truman’s 1948 convention in Philadelphia was a mess, even by the standards of George McGovern. Democrats were challenging the incumbent. Some were trying to persuade Dwight Eisenhower to run. Truman’s first pick for a veep, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, turned him down. The president was way behind in the polls—and that was before the cleavage in his party over race. Southerners walked out over the party’s civil-rights plank and Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey’s speech calling on the party to “walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” A few weeks later, South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond would launch an independent bid for the White House—a defection accelerated by Truman’s order desegregating the armed forces a few weeks after the convention.
Truman won in large part because he ran against Congress. The “give ’em hell” line was about Congress. His feisty acceptance speech delivered at the McGovernesque hour of 2 a.m. was all vinegar. “We’ve going to beat these Republicans, and they’re going to like it.” To thunderous applause, the president called Congress back into session to complete work on an array of legislation that the GOP had pledged to support in its platform. Congress was his foil, and the heavyweight GOP ticket of Thomas Dewey and Earl Warren was but one target.
So where does all of this leave Obama? His reelection appears much more likely than Truman’s seemed, but in contrast to the man from Independence, he’s much more ambivalent about Congress. It’s hard to run against the institution when you still control one chamber. It’s also hard to take on your congressional opponents when they’re relatively unknown. Why elevate Mitch McConnell when most Americans couldn’t pick him out of a lineup? (Truman’s speech, like an ancient artifact, made reference to the Rules Committee.) Obama’s problem: Do you run against Mitt Romney or John Boehner, or both?
So far the president has made his campaign about Romney rather than Capitol Hill, all but lampooning the former governor as a top-hatted, monocle-wearing plutocrat. But going after Congress has its risks, too. After all, as the first sitting senator elected president since John Kennedy, Obama vowed to change the culture of a Washington he said he knew and to make it more genial and effective. Hopey-changey is a harder sell now, so he can either extend his hand and make the case that politics will be more civil in his second term or argue that he misunderestimated the enmity of his enemies. Either way, he can’t be the Obama of 2008—and that’s leaving aside the question of whether the electorate would be unsettled by a perhaps rightfully angry black president.
Truman’s come-back-into-session tactic might be a good one for Obama. Polls show that he has the public on his side on the tax issue, at least for now. And he could do something magnanimous and inevitable, such as cave on the Keystone XL pipeline, which has also proven popular in the polls. Congress is facing sequestration in a lame-duck session, so why not call lawmakers back now? It’s not the same thing as running against Congress, but it shows engagement and a seriousness of purpose that’s lacking in a campaign that so far seems all about bashing the GOP’s Medicare plans; this may be necessary for victory, but it’s hardly guaranteed to be sufficient.
Obama has a good chance of winning with a cautious, tear-down-Romney campaign, but a congressional gambit might actually give him a mandate.