Democrats offer Trump the chance to be Truman
Democrats have given President Trump the chance to be Truman; he should run with it. With congressional Democrats stuck in impasse over coronavirus relief and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden disengaged, Trump could rerun Truman’s successful 1948 reelection strategy. Trump doubly benefits: Congress is Washington’s most unpopular entity (and gridlock its most unpopular trait), so Biden must emerge to prevent Trump running against it.
President Trump’s recent executive orders in response to the coronavirus crisis put him on the offensive for the first time in months. With November fast approaching, this comes not a moment too soon for him. He must quickly close the gap with Biden, and his action offers him his best chance.
The executive orders’ substantive impact (an opportunity to defer some payroll taxes, providing a temporary $400 federal unemployment payment, and initiatives addressing housing and student loan payments) is secondary to their style points: A juxtaposition between presidential action and congressional inaction. Admittedly, the initiatives do less than desired; however, this only underscores the contrast. Trump is doing what he can to counter Washington gridlock.
In a crisis, action always beats inaction. To students of American history, this contrast will seem familiar, even if three generations removed. In 1948, Truman ran his reelection campaign largely against a “Do Nothing” Republican Congress. It led to the biggest presidential upset of the last 100 years — at least until Trump’s 2016 victory.
There are striking parallels between the Truman and Trump presidencies.
Critics viewed both as White House flukes. Truman was a backbencher, machine politician from Missouri, plucked from obscurity to be FDR’s final vice president. The political novice Trump upset a crowded Republican field and then knocked off the shoo-in Hillary Clinton.
In office, critics viewed both as overmatched. When FDR died, he left Truman an office he had incomparably enlarged and America the most important combatant in history’s largest war. Trump took office without political experience or even many experienced advisors.
Both also had to contend with strong congressional opposition after their first midterm. Truman confronted large majorities in both bodies, Republicans having not controlled Congress since 1933. Trump lost the House in his midterm; he then was continually investigated and impeached.
However, their most notable similarity is having economic downturns precede their reelection: Truman in 1947 and Trump currently. If this sounds inconsequential, downturns have had big ramifications for presidential reelection. Since 1916, only three elected incumbents have lost reelection: Hoover, Carter, and Bush I — all had economic downturns within a year of reelection. Conversely, only one president during that time has overcome downturn within a year of his reelection: Truman.
Truman well remembered the Great Depression raising Democrats from political irrelevance to FDR winning an unimaginable four consecutive terms. Truman knew he had to focus America’s attention away from the economy. So, he simultaneously ran away from it and against what he dubbed the “Do Nothing” Republican Congress.
With an even worse economy than Truman’s, Trump needs such a foil even more. Democrats have removed Biden from the fray in hope of denying him one. However, in avoiding the direct risk of Biden’s public mistakes boosting Trump, Democrats have indirectly raised another threat: Congressional Democrats have become the party’s focal point during the coronavirus crisis.
Congress is far more unpopular than Trump — regularly having a job approval rating less than half his. Of course, our current circumstance is anything but “regular” — it is a crisis and the impasse looks worse. Seen as a debating society — in contrast to presidential action — the public can easily blame Congress for the current relief effort’s standstill.
By low-profiling Biden and high-profiling their congressional leaders, Democrats have given Trump Truman’s opportunity. Trump’s recent executive orders shows his willingness to take it. Now, he should take on being Truman.
Trailing in the polls and with an economy that will not change enough to meaningfully influence voters, Trump has little to lose and much to gain by attacking against Congress, as Truman did.
When trailing, any change in the race offers positive potential. Yet for months, Trump has been unable to produce it. Ironically, Democrats, who are so focused on preserving the race’s status quo, have unintentionally changed it by having their congressional delegation take the spotlight from their presidential nominee.
Contrastingly, Trump gets to reprise Truman, the only president to successfully run against a weak economy in the last century. He also gets his best chance to force Biden back before the public — the thing Democrats most fear. Either way Trump benefits, with either outcome offering Trump his best chances at November victory.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.