As the president’s poll numbers decline, his political advisors are surely studying the most successful come-from-behind victory in the annals of American elections, at least in contests for the country’s top job. Back in 1948, no one expected the-then incumbent to defeat Republican Thomas Dewey. But, then Harry Truman gave ’em hell and FDR’s third vice president won a presidential term in his own right.
When elected to the vice presidency in 1944, the Missourian was little more than an afterthought, with all the attention focused on the then-three term incumbent.
Defining the bandwagon effect and showing how, in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama’s political team used it to help their man win the White House, Jay Cost speculates that this team might “Run the Truman 1948 playbook” in order to help the incumbent win a second term in office:
Harry Truman is today remembered as a straight shooter who told it like it was. That’s true in many respects, but he was also one of the most partisan presidents in the postwar era, and his 1948 campaign was one of the most demagogic. Check out, for instance, Truman’s 1948 nomination acceptance address. The reason Truman ran that campaign was because he was pinched from multiple sides – from the left and the right in his own party, from the Republicans, and from the economy, which ground to a virtual halt by election day. In response, Truman ran hard against the Republicans, arguing that they were set to destroy the New Deal. Expect Obama to run a similar ‘Give ‘em hell!’ strategy, making particular use of Paul Ryan’s budget to demagogue the Republican position. There’s really no reason to pick somebody like Debbie Wasserman Schultz as chair of the DNC, other than to drive home the ‘GOP wants to murder granny’ argument.
Cost is skeptical at how effective this strategy will be in the current political environment: Dewey, in 1948, “pulled his punches”
. . . allowing Truman to set the terms of the public conversation in the final weeks. It’s unlikely that the Republican nominee will be so passive, and since he/she likely won’t be from Congress, it will be hard to tie him/her to the House (as Clinton tied Dole to Gingrich in 1996).
Read the whole thing. Let me offer another reason: In 1948, Truman was not running for re-election to the White House. He was president because the incumbent had died in office. In 1944, as per the above, he played second fiddle to Roosevelt’s conducting role. He thus didn’t give Americans a standard against which they could measure his accomplishments.
Obama, however, has given us just such a standard. He made a number of promises in his 2008 campaign, for a “net spending cut” against the political culture of Washington. He would be a new kind of politician. His economic plans would yield robust growth.
Once elected, he pushed a near-trillion dollar “stimulus” would put people to work, reducing the unemployment rate to levels not yet seen. Harry S Truman never made the kind of promises Barack Obama did. His task in 1948 was not to win the American people over a second time, but to make his own case in his own right. That’s something the incumbent did back in 2008.
President Obama’s problem today is that he’s losing the support he gained that year with his hopeful appeal for change.