Obama needs a little of the Truman touch.

The history behind current events.
Nov. 19 2010 7:16 AM

Give 'Em Hell, Barry

Obama needs a little of the Truman touch.

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But on the whole Truman's bipartisanship was good policy and good politics. He brought Republicans into his foreign policy at different stages—consulting with congressional leaders, appointing members of both parties to American delegations abroad, naming Republicans like Hoffman to key posts in the State Department and elsewhere. These moves sustained public support for his internationalism and muted attacks from across the aisle. Even the loyalty program fended off a Republican bill that would have been worse and deprived the GOP of a campaign issue.

Truman's bipartisan successes didn't change the culture of Washington. They didn't end partisanship, nastiness, or scurrilous attacks. Even when Republicans collaborated with the president, they still lambasted him when it suited their needs. But Truman's strategy had an unforeseen benefit: It allowed him to inhabit the presidency with new authority while putting in place policies that Americans considered to be in the nation's long-term best interest.

At the same time, his outreach to the Republicans did nothing to prevent him from going partisan on domestic issues for his own purposes. Facing an uphill fight in the 1948 election, Truman famously trashed the "do nothing Eightieth Congress" on a whistle-stop tour around the country, to cheers of "Give 'em hell, Harry!"–ending, two years after his rout, with a sweet victory.

Truman has been remembered as a simple man. His strategy in dealing with his Republican antagonists was improvised, and his triumphs almost inadvertent. But the luster of his early Cold War policymaking and the legend of his 1948 campaign have endured. They reflected an intuitive sophistication—worthy of his predecessor Roosevelt, to whom he was so often invidiously compared—about when to seek consensus and when to go down fighting. Successful Democrats who followed him, from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton, knew when to draw on the tradition of principled but pragmatic leadership that Truman bequeathed. For Obama to succeed, he will need to draw on it, too.

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Correction, Nov. 19, 2010: This article originally mentioned Richard Nixon as one of the newcomers to the Senate after the Republican takeover in 1946. Nixon wasn't elected to the Senate until 1950. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.