WASHINGTON — Progressives have yearned for President Obama to follow Harry Truman’s strategy from the 1948 campaign by giving his Republican opponents hell. Now that Obama is doing just that, his critics say he’s not looking presidential.
As a longtime advocate of the Truman approach (and a fan of Give ‘Em Hell Harry and his way of doing politics), I think Obama is doing the right thing. Critics of the battling style miss what Obama needs to get done in this campaign and also ignore the extent to which so many of his foes refuse to treat him in a presidential way. Far better for him to be a fully engaged fighter with passion for what he’s saying than a distant, regal figure pretending that the other side is playing by a dainty set of rules.
But if 1948 is to be the model, what can we learn from Truman’s experience, and how does that election relate the one we’re having in 2012?
The similarities are important. Truman in 1946, like Obama in 2010 (and, for that matter, Bill Clinton in 1994), suffered a severe setback in midterm elections that substantially strengthened the hands of his congressional adversaries. Truman’s opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, was a Northeastern Republican governor who, like Mitt Romney, was not a favorite of the most conservative wing of his party. But unlike Romney, Dewey was a genuine moderate trying hard not be ensnared in the agenda of the GOP Congress.