Even before this month's midterm shellacking, many commentators were saying that Barack Obama was beginning to look like the second coming of Jimmy Carter. Now, with Congress tacking hard to the right, and 64 newly-minted Republican House Members lining up behind John Boehner, the doomsayers are growing even louder and bolder.
But the Obama equals Carter crowd is way off the mark. The more accurate resemblance is between Obama and Harry Truman.
The similarities are striking. The 1946 midterm elections were seen as a referendum on President Truman, who had taken office a year and a half earlier, following FDR's death. The Democrats took a shellacking, losing the House, with Republicans picking up 55 seats. This was the first GOP victory since 1928, with the country convinced that Republicans were better equipped to handle the post-war economic recession. By 1948, Truman's popularity was still shaky and he barely won re-election -- indeed, the Chicago Tribune had such a hard time believing it, the paper anointed Dewey the winner in a bonehead headline for the ages.
History has been kinder to Truman than the Trib was. Today, he's widely admired for his championing of the Marshall Plan to rebuild postwar Europe, his deft handling of the start of the Cold War, his firing of Gen. MacArthur -- a move that reaffirmed civilian control of the military, and his efforts to racially integrate America's armed forces. He's also lauded for his "the buck stops here" attitude and willingness to take responsibility -- even for unpopular decisions.
The public now rates Truman as one of America's best presidents.
For his part, President Obama already has three major accomplishments to his credit. By pushing through his stimulus package, he kept the country from plummeting into an economic depression. He enacted financial regulatory reform. And, most importantly, after 100 years of legislative futility, he oversaw the passage of comprehensive health care reform.
While this trio might not currently be seen as momentous, each will be vindicated by history -- especially health care reform, which will cover more Americans than ever before, and transform how we deliver care, so that keeping people healthy becomes a priority not an afterthought.
President Obama has also spearheaded many other accomplishments that would be lauded under other administrations but have been overshadowed by his other achievements -- or just ignored by his critics. These include: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (extending the statute of limitations for equal-pay lawsuits); negotiating a favorable renewal of the START treaty; fixing the student loan program (while saving taxpayers tens of billions); redirecting the mission of NASA; and focusing the nation's attention on the epidemic of childhood obesity.
Like Truman, Obama will not be fully appreciated until he is out of office. But, like Truman, he will win re-election. And also like Truman, Obama will one day be considered one of America's great presidents because of his willingness to do bold things and take responsibility for momentous decision -- even unpopular ones.
Give 'em hell, Barack.
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