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.
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Truman capitalized on the schism in the GOP, placing the Republicans in a lose-lose situation. Had Congress put through the bills necessary to fulfill Truman’s call, the president could have argued that he was an effective leader who could whip Congress into shape and solve the nation’s current woes. If Congress took no action, as turned out to be the case, he could contend that the Republicans were unconcerned with the common man and incapable of easing their economic suffering. Truman adopted this line throughout the fall and won a surprising victory in November, widely regarded as the most shocking upset in presidential history.Skip to next paragraph
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Obama is probably hoping for the same outcome, but the times are much different in 2011 than they were in 1948. In the late 1940s, both parties had liberal and conservative wings. Today, our parties are polarized with the Republicans unified behind an established conservative orthodoxy. Certainly there are differences of degree between candidates like Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and the long shots in the field. There are also divisions in Congress between the Tea Party freshmen in the House and establishment Republicans, as the recent debt-ceiling debacle has made clear. But these fault lines are nowhere near as wide as the gulf between Taft and Dewey.
The contemporary Republican Party is prepared to oppose a comprehensive jobs plan that emulates the approach taken in the 2009 stimulus bill. Given the promises that accompanied its passage, the GOP will have more success in blaming the president and Democrats for the current economic malaise than their 1948 counterparts had.
A second point to consider is the state of the Senate. In 1948, the Republicans had control of both the Senate and the House. When Truman criticized Congress, he could do so with impunity, because failure there was a failure for the Republicans. Today, with the Democrats controlling the Senate by three seats, Obama must be very careful lest his attacks on Congress contribute to an anti-incumbent feeling and blow back on the 17 Democrats running for reelection. With Senate contests in key swing states like Ohio and Florida, doing so could jeopardize Democratic control and lead to more divided government if Obama wins a second term.
Focusing on Congress indicates that Obama’s strategy is based on a hope that history will repeat itself. Unfortunately for Obama, that seems unlikely, given the current state of the Republican Party.
Michael Bowen is a visiting assistant professor of history at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Penn. His book “The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft, and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party” came out this month.