By now, everyone is familiar with the saga of the failed president: of how he dashed the hopes he had raised when he arrived in office; of how he seemed to fan rather than bank partisan fires; of how discontent with his ineffective leadership led to a Republican landslide; of how he was forced to govern by executive order to bypass a truculent Congress determined to block everything he proposed; of how he was derided for his feckless foreign policy; and of how his approval rating sank throughout his presidency.
And yet the story turns out to have a surprisingly happy ending. Harry S. Truman is now considered one of our more successful presidents, rating in the top 10 in every historical survey.
When you compare Truman’s and Barack Obama’s presidencies, the similarities are striking, which should serve as a bracing reminder to all those now dismissing Obama.
Both Truman and Obama entered office at a time of crisis — Truman upon the death of FDR, near the end of World War II, Obama amid a massive recession and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They both assumed the presidency with high national expectations. Truman’s approval rating was 87 percent when he took over, while Obama was inaugurated on a crest of hope.
But both also faced national fatigue. In Truman’s case, the country was exhausted by the Great Depression and war, in Obama’s by the Great Recession and two wars. The decks were stacked against them.
For both, things rapidly got worse. Just a year after taking office, Truman’s approval rating had plummeted to 32 percent. Despite a booming economy, he seemed to hit one speed bump after another — labor strife, civil rights conflicts, Russian adventurism — a succession of jolts that translated into a Republican landslide in the 1946 mid-term elections.
The new Republican Congress was in no mood to work with the president. As Robert Taft, the Republicans’ de facto Senate leader, put it, “The purpose of the opposition is to oppose.” And oppose they did. Truman was forced into issuing executive orders — some 900 of them — to further his agenda, from integrating the military to threatening a government takeover of the steel industry during a strike. Charges that he had overstepped his constitutional bounds soon followed.
On foreign policy, as Eastern Europe and then China fell to the communists, Truman was charged with incompetence and even treachery. Taft declaimed that the Democrats were divided between “communism and Americanism,” which, he said, led to a policy so confused that it made the United States the “laughing stock of the world.” Sound familiar?
And that was just the Republicans. There were also dissenters within Truman’s own party, not only anti-integration Southern Democrats, but those who thought him insufficiently liberal because, among other things, he threatened to draft striking railroad workers into the military and initiated loyalty oaths.
Finally, there was the constant ridicule of the press, which portrayed Truman not as a man of deep conviction who couldn’t be cowed, but as a simpleton. By the end of his presidency, the image had stuck.
Obama’s correlates are eerily similar: the midterm disasters (two of them), the fierce opposition of Republicans, the ultimate reliance on executive orders, the conservative castigation of his foreign policy as weak and ineffectual, and the media’s emphasis on his incompetence, while largely ignoring his successes.
You could call him Barack Truman.
But that’s politics. There is also history. Truman, widely considered a failed leader in his day, is now seen as an exemplar of effective presidential leadership. The things for which he received almost no credit during his presidency — the galloping economy, his civil rights record, the containment of communism, the Marshall Plan — are now a proud legacy.
It is obviously too early to know what Obama’s legacy will be. But this much we do know: History has been kind to presidents who act boldly, who are brave even when there is no evident political gain, and who attempt to move the country in the direction of tolerance and equality.
We also know that presidents are measured not by poll numbers but by their ultimate effect on the nation. Like Truman, Obama may be swimming against the tide, which, as in Truman’s day, is timorous and fearful. But he may also earn his own place in that presidential pantheon — which may finally be the most important similarity between them.
• Niall Ferguson: Obama can’t govern? Who knew?
• Michael A. Cohen: The honey badger presidency
• Nicholas Burns: Obama’s daunting new year
• James Carroll: Obama has become a figure of American disappointment
Neal Gabler is a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Lear Center. He is writing a biography of Senator Edward Kennedy.