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Opinion

Obama can't blame the do-nothing Congress

Presidential criticism of Congress has been fruitful for incumbents in the past, but Obama should be aware that the political climate today is much different from that of 1948, when Harry Truman campaigned against the do-nothing 80th Congress.

By Michael Bowen / September 28, 2011



New Wilmington, Penn.

When he unveiled his latest jobs plan earlier this month, President Obama seemed to be sending a clear challenge to House Republicans: Pass my agenda or face the wrath of voters. In doing so, he seems ready to run for reelection against congressional Republicans regardless of who the GOP nominates.

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Presidential criticism of Congress during periods of divided government has been fruitful for incumbents in the past, but Mr. Obama should be aware that the political climate today is much different from that of 1948, when Harry Truman campaigned against the “do-nothing” 80th Congress.

Incumbent Truman entered that election cycle at a decided disadvantage. Demobilization from World War II had sparked inflation, a housing shortage, and rampant labor unrest, leading to Truman’s approval rating sinking below 40 percent for much of the year. The Democratic party was also in a shambles. Rather than accept a strong civil rights plan, southern Democrats nominated Strom Thurmond on the “Dixiecrat” ticket. The more liberal elements of the party formed the Progressive Party and nominated former Vice-President Henry Wallace. With the Democrats splintered, pundits forecast an easy win for the GOP nominee, New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey.

Truman relished the underdog role and took two important steps to revive his candidacy. First, he called the Republican-controlled 80th Congress back into special session and demanded that they pass a laundry list of legislation, including bills that addressed civil rights, minimum wage, and aid to education. Second, he launched a nationwide campaign where he attacked the congressional Republicans constantly, laying the nation’s economic woes at the feet of the GOP and, by default, Governor Dewey.

Truman’s rhetorical offensive, in which he promised to “give ‘em hell,” was incredibly effective, largely because of Republican dysfunction. The Republicans were split between moderates under Dewey and strident conservatives led by Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft. Dewey tried to make the Republicans appear more progressive and distanced himself from the pro-business record of the GOP. Taft hoped to limit the growth of the New Deal and move back to a system of limited government. The Republican platform, drafted by the Dewey wing, included the very things Truman asked for during the special session but was completely unpalatable to the conservatives in Congress asked to implement them.

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