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.

Harry S. Truman, 1945.
Harry S. Truman, 1945

"Whenever a fellow tells me he's bipartisan," Harry S. Truman is said to have quipped, "I know he's going to vote against me."

Truman has gone down in history for his fighting spirit and fierce partisanship. He stood up to Joe McCarthy and pushed a civil rights agenda that was ahead of its time. But like Barack Obama, Truman lost control of Congress shortly into his presidency. For the first time since before the New Deal, Republicans were suddenly in charge of Capitol Hill. Truman bounced back because he embraced bipartisanship—but of a very specific sort. He didn't fold his cards and meekly cave on civil rights, McCarthyism, or other issues dear to liberal hearts. On those matters, he held firm and dueled the GOP to a standoff. Instead, Truman found other areas—in foreign policy, it so happened—where he could get his adversaries to follow his principled lead.

In 1946, it was a Republican year. Truman had held office only since April 1945, when Roosevelt, three months into his fourth term, died. With FDR's death and the war's end, the urgency of rallying around the president and his party ebbed. Even liberals were lukewarm toward Truman. Reconversion to a peacetime economy raised fears of another Depression. Labor militancy was at an all-time high; 4.5 million workers went on strike in the year before the election. The end of price controls uncorked inflation.

On Election Day, Republicans won control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1933. Their numbers in the House swelled from 191 to 246, and in the Senate from 38 to 51. New arrivals in the upper chamber included McCarthy. * William Fulbright of Arkansas, a Democrat, suggested that Truman turn over power—that he appoint a Republican secretary of state and resign. (Truman dubbed him "Half-Bright.") Putting the best spin on events, White House press secretary Charlie Ross insisted, "Nobody here in the White House is disappointed. The consensus is that President Truman is now a free man and can write a fine record in the coming two years."

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The GOP, dominated by reactionaries, tried to stop Truman from writing that record. Republicans throttled his Fair Deal and passed the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act over his veto. But Truman hung tough. When conservatives organized to block his appointment of David Lilienthal to head the new Atomic Energy Commission, branding him pro-Communist, Truman didn't flinch. "We cannot let the peanut politicians ruin a good man for their personal satisfaction and the detriment of the country and the world," he declared. With Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg leading a coterie of defectors, Truman prevailed.

If Truman scrapped with the opposition domestically, he discovered in foreign policy an arena where he could bring them on board without sacrificing principles. As a creature of Congress, where he had spent most of his public career before assuming the presidency, Truman had to force himself to stand aloof from the pettiness on Capitol Hill. As he did, wrote Frank McNaughton of Time magazine in March 1947, he seemed to be "growing into his White House job instead of trying to grow back to the Congress."

Events, of course, played into Truman's hands. The Cold War was beginning, and the governments of Greece and Turkey faced threats from the Soviet Union—Turkey in the form of pressure at its border, Greece from subversion within. Truman's new Secretary of State, General George Marshall, prescribed economic and military assistance. To secure passage in Congress, the president summoned leaders of both parties to the White House for a briefing, where Marshall and Dean Acheson spoke passionately on behalf of the plan. Again, Vandenberg, who had recently renounced his isolationism, jumped onboard. On March 12, Truman went before a joint session of Congress to seeking emergency aid to the two European countries, and spoke the words that became known as the Truman Doctrine: the policy of aiding "free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."

This policy could be fairly described as centrism, but it wasn't centrism of the squishy sort that bipartisanship often produces. And it paid political dividends. It spurred Henry Wallace (fired by Truman the previous year) to intensify his anti-administration rhetoric from the fellow-traveling left, but Wallace's carping served to unite liberals behind the president's anti-Communist banner. On the right, meanwhile, the Truman Doctrine brought forth attacks from isolationists like Robert Taft. But Taft had no credible alternative to offer his own anti-Communist base. The emergency bill passed by large margins in both chambers, with even Taft voting yea.

Truman nurtured his bipartisan consensus long enough to secure other cornerstones of his postwar foreign policy. In June, Marshall unveiled his plan for rebuilding Europe. Republicans were among its enthusiasts. Herbert Hoover, who after World War I had overseen the distribution of food across the continent, had recently issued a report calling for the strengthening of the German economy; another prominent Republican, Henry L. Stimson—Secretary of War under both William Howard Taft and FDR and the epitome of establishment bipartisanship—led a Committee for the Marshall Plan composed of eminences. The plan passed at its full appropriation. Truman grumbled when Vandenberg demanded that he name Paul Hoffman, a moderate Republican who was president of the Studebaker Corporation, to run the Marshall Plan, but in the end he wisely acquiesced, and Hoffman turned out to be an excellent choice.

Like all bipartisanship, the Cold War variety had its downside as well—instances where the path of compromise proved to be misguided. The 1947 National Security Act, while usefully reforming the armed forces, also created the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency, which metastasized into overgrown and at times dangerously unaccountable bureaucracies. Truman's loyalty program of 1947, although designed to include procedural safeguards to protect the innocent, set a problematic precedent for rooting out subversives in government.

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.

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