Can Biden Look to Truman for How to Get Presidency Unstuck?Historians in the News
tags: Democratic Party, presidential history, Harry Truman
John Dickerson is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a correspondent for CBS News. He is the author of The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency.
The Biden administration has already zipped through two familiar stages of the modern presidency. First came the high expectations: Dreamy headlines compared Joe Biden to Franklin D. Roosevelt, an unrealistic standard for a president with the thinnest possible margin in the Senate and just a four-vote majority in the House. Then reality intruded—COVID-19 didn’t go away, inflation rose, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan was even messier than expected. Biden’s plans for social spending and voting reform were blocked by senators in his own party. This initiated the second stage: All is not lost. As a headline on a New York Times op-ed by the senior Obama adviser David Axelrod declared, “It’s Not Over for Joe Biden.”
The president’s approval rating these days fibrillates just above 40 percent. Historically, when that number has been less than 50, the president’s party has lost an average of 37 House seats in the midterms. The next stage in the Biden presidency’s journey will undoubtedly be lighting a candle at the shrine of Harry Truman, the patron saint of presidencies stuck in the mud.
Truman, the 33rd president and the subject of Jeffrey Frank’s The Trials of Harry S. Truman, experienced two political resurrections. The first took place in 1948, just two years after Democrats endured a midterm shellacking as bad as many fear will take place in 2022. Roosevelt’s former vice president, a disappointment to party insiders and observers alike—“To err is Truman,” went the phrase—came from behind to win the election. Truman’s second revival happened after his political career was over. He left the White House in 1953 with an approval rating lower than Donald Trump’s. Historians later took fuller stock of all that he had faced during his tenure. He is now considered in the near-great presidential category, seated at awards ceremonies in the row behind Washington, Lincoln, and FDR.
Frank chooses a moment at a concession stand at the 1944 Democratic convention, in Chicago, to mark the start of Truman’s ascent to power. Managing a hot dog “dripping mustard like butterscotch sauce,” a journalist wrote, the natty former haberdasher turned senator from Independence, Missouri, was interrupted by a summons to the rostrum, where presiding officials had announced him as Roosevelt’s vice president. “By golly, that’s me!” he said, discarding the frankfurter.
The image drives home the slapdash, unlikely origins of Truman’s presidency. FDR’s deteriorating health as his fourth term approached meant that the leadership qualities of his vice president were more important than ever, but the selection process reflected the shortsighted requirements of party politics that so often influence the running-mate choice. FDR dropped his incumbent vice president, Henry Wallace, because he was too liberal for party conservatives. He couldn’t tap his preferred candidate, James F. Byrnes, a former senator from South Carolina and an administration official, because Byrnes’s uncompromisingly segregationist views made him too conservative. Truman—“The Missouri Compromise”—was somewhere in the middle. “Boys, I guess it’s Truman,” FDR said one hot July night, as if he were making a choice no more significant than to have fish rather than chicken for dinner. James Roosevelt, the president’s eldest son, said his father regarded Truman as “in no way … big enough to become president.”
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