"Do nothing" - Barack Obama’s Truman show

Obama’s interpretation of “do-nothing” is a striking abdication of leadership. Whereas Truman was re-elected because he fought with Congress to pass legislation, Obama is only willing to point fingers and watch it fail

Obama's interpretation of "do-nothing" - feet up, eyes closed
Ewan Watt
On 25 November 2011 10:24

Even before entering the White House, Barack Obama had consulted his library just as regularly as he sought counsel from Plouffe, Gibbs, Jarrett and Axelrod.

Like everyone else in Washington during the last presidential campaign, Obama was enamored with ‘Team of Rivals’, Doris Kearns Goodwin's seminal work on how Abraham Lincoln exploited the political differences amongst his political adversaries to form his administration. Goodwin’s work reportedly influenced President Obama to appoint Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and keep Robert Gates at the Pentagon. 

Following the president’s midterm “shellacking,” the ‘Obama Book Club’ was again looking for inspiration, this time picking out Lou Cannon’s ‘The Role of a Lifetime,’ a biography detailing how Ronald Reagan was able to implement much of his agenda, in spite of the Democrats’ iron grip over the House of Representatives. 

However, it seems that when Obama was reading about the Gipper’s tussles with Tip O’Neill he had another book on his night stand, David McCullough’s ‘Truman.’

With plummeting approval ratings and a deeply unpopular war, President Harry Truman based much of his re-election campaign on his dealings with Congressional Republicans who had seized both the House and Senate in 1946. With their stoic resistance to Truman’s social agenda, the president quickly dubbed the 80th Congress “do-nothing,” a term that stuck and largely defined the GOP’s ideological intransigence for the second half of his first term. 

Faced with similar challenges on Capitol Hill, Barack Obama has clearly decided to pursue the same strategy, blaming Republicans for the Supercommittee’s failure and his ill-fated jobs bill. It’s a narrative he has now embraced and – like Truman – taken on the road to the voters.

Unfortunately, Obama has entirely misunderstood Truman and how he defeated Republican Thomas E. Dewey. Apart from the fact that the most “do-nothing” aspect about the current Congress is the Democratic Senate’s failure to get a budget passed in almost 1,000 days, Obama’s analogy does not conveniently line up with Truman’s experience as the president might have hoped. 

Faced with a Republican Congress, Truman didn’t sit in the Oval Office, lob rhetorical grenades and merely point fingers—he excelled. Despite labeling it “do-nothing,” the 80th Congress was actually one of the most productive in America’s history, largely because of Truman’s leadership. 

Although early on Truman suffered a major setback with the passage, and the overriding of his veto, of the Taft-Hartley Act, the 80th Congress spawned several great legislative accomplishments for Truman, namely the passage of aid to Turkey and Greece (initiation of the Truman Doctrine), the National Security Act, and the Marshall Plan. This is where Obama’s plan of running against a “do-nothing Congress” runs into trouble:  Truman led. 

The passage of the Marshall Plan was Truman at his very best. Knowing that a comprehensive aid package to Europe would never pass with his name on it, Truman dubbed ‘The Marshall Plan’ after Secretary of State George C. Marshall, knowing that Republicans would not dare vote down an initiative named after the popular general. 

But rather than fighting to see legislation pass, Obama is banking on failure. 

Take the failure of the Supercommittee. It’s become evidently clear that like Paul Krugman et al, Obama doesn’t see the deficit as a problem. His disdainful treatment and failure to even consider enacting Simpson-Bowles demonstrated this all too clearly. 

But to Obama, the Supercommittee wasn’t a moment to lead and strike a deal, but a golden political opportunity. Even though it comprised of six Democrats and six Republicans, the Supercommittee’s failure to reach a deal immediately drew cries from Obama that it was the GOP’s refusal to hike taxes that had scuppered a deal. Throughout negotiations, the president was criticized for his blatant hands-off approach, failing to intervene when it became apparent that no deal was forthcoming. 

But again, according to the president, it was the Republicans’ “do-nothing” attitude that had prevented a clean, bipartisan deal to resolve America’s perilous fiscal situation. It was the result Obama wanted, lining up nicely with his narrative. But the Supercommittee’s collapse indicates that the president has not avoided blame entirely, with a Reuters/Ipsos poll indicating that “one-third of those surveyed said it lowered their opinion of Obama.”

Given the lack of depth of the GOP’s presidential bench, Obama’s own narrative may well be his undoing—and he might already have been found out. 

In attacking the “do-nothing” Congress, Truman was laying down the gauntlet to Republicans, challenging them to do legislative battle. It was a battle in which, in the most part, Truman would emerge victorious. 

Conversely Obama’s interpretation of “do-nothing” resembles political Schadenfreude and a striking abdication of leadership. Whereas Truman was re-elected because he fought with Congress to pass legislation and looked like a leader, Obama is only willing to tout legislation so he can point fingers and watch it fail. 

In the eyes of the electorate, pushing failure may not necessarily be a recipe for success. 

Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based public affairs consultant. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @ewancwatt

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