Obama, channeling Truman, casts Congress as foil

WASHINGTON-October 7, 2011 "If Congress does something, then I can't run against a do-nothing Congress," Obama said Thursday at a White House news conference. "If Congress does nothing, then it's not a matter of me running against them. I think the American people will run them out of town."

Obama's message is straight out of the playbook of former President Harry Truman, who overcame a midterm drubbing by Republicans and assailed a "do-nothing" Congress from the back of a campaign train to win another term in 1948. The comeback was epitomized by a jubilant Truman hoisting a copy of the Chicago Tribune after the newspaper printed the headline "Dewey Defeats Truman."

The Truman strategy lets Obama blame Congress for the stagnant economy at a time when Washington lawmakers are loathed by the public. It also sets up a contrast with Republicans, allowing Obama to campaign on popular issues like tax cuts for small businesses and aid to rehire construction workers and teachers, whether the bill advances or not.

"If he's blaming Congress, then he's not just sitting there like a potted plant and letting them run all over him," said Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University professor emeritus of politics. "He may not get results but he may not expect to get results."

But the calculation is risky. Obama could be vulnerable to arguments that he's ineffective and can't even rally enough Democrats to get the jobs bill through Congress. It also puts Obama firmly in the middle of the gridlock of Washington, which he vowed to tame when he ran for president in 2008.

Republicans have pointed out that some Senate Democrats are balking at the jobs bill. They also accuse Obama of ditching talks with Congress to campaign across the country.

"We're legislating. He's campaigning," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, speaking Thursday at the Washington Ideas Forum.

For struggling presidential candidates and incumbents alike, Truman was Comeback Kid long before Bill Clinton embraced the moniker.

Like Obama, Truman's party lost control in Congress two years before he stood before the voters. His approval ratings sank. But during the summer of 1948, Truman called Congress back into session and then portrayed congressional Republicans as the main obstacles to economic progress. He roared back to defeat Republican Thomas E. Dewey and two other candidates.

Since Truman, running against Congress has brought mixed results.

Trailing by Labor Day in 1992, President George H.W. Bush tried to claim the Truman mantle against Clinton. He questioned the Arkansas governor's decisiveness and accused the "gridlock Congress" of blocking his domestic agenda.

But the comparisons fell flat. Clinton traveled to Truman's hometown of Independence, Mo., and vowed to defend the middle class. Truman's daughter, Margaret, took to the airwaves and said Bush and Truman were as different as "night and day."

In 1996, Clinton's campaign attached Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the Republican nominee, to unpopular House Speaker Newt Gingrich, saying the duo would work with Republicans in Congress to gut Medicare and Social Security. Clinton won by a comfortable margin.

Taking on Congress may be Obama's best strategy right now. The sluggish economy has undercut Obama's standing with many voters, so confronting GOP leaders lets him try to deflect some of the blame while energizing his Democratic base.

A clear Republican challenger won't be selected for months, so Congress presents an easy, unpopular target. In an August AP-GfK poll, Congress had a 12 percent approval rating; 87 percent disapproved. Obama's approval rating, meanwhile, has slipped to 41 percent in a recent Gallup poll.

Paul Begala, a former Clinton aide who is advising Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC supporting Obama, said the president has shown willingness to compromise with Republicans. Now many voters, including independents, want to see someone fighting for a jobs agenda.

"A strong, sharp contrast on jobs is exactly what the president needs," he said.

The Truman strategy has been building since last summer. During a bus tour in Iowa, Obama said he was working on a jobs plan and "if they don't get it done, then we'll be running against a Congress that's not doing anything for the American people."

On Labor Day, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., showed Obama a copy of a fiery speech that Truman delivered in Detroit during the `48 campaign. Obama mentioned the speech during a rally with union workers, noting Truman had discussed how voters had elected a group of lawmakers who weren't friendly to labor "and now they were learning their lesson."

"What was true back in 1948 is true in 2011," Obama said.

Obama has called out Republicans by name. In Cincinnati, Obama said Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky could "either kill this jobs bill, or they can help us pass it."

In Texas, Obama challenged House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to "come down here to Dallas and explain" why he opposes the bill.

More tough talk is expected as Obama tries to align congressional Republicans with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other GOP presidential hopefuls. The Truman show may just be starting.

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