Incumbent Presidents who seek re-election usually win. As Matthew Dowd pointed out, it takes a combination of unfavorable circumstances to defeat an incumbent: a bad domestic economy, overseas troubles, and a charismatic opponent. Since 1900, such circumstances derailed the re-election bids of Herbert Hover (1932), Jimmy Carter (1980), and G. H. W. Bush (1992).
Could President Obama face a similar "perfect storm" in 2012? Although economists and analysts differ in their outlooks, it is certainly possible that the economy could still be stalled, or even into a "double dip" downturn. Even with Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, the unsettled state of the world always raises the possibility of another major crisis just in time for the election. Finally, while the GOP field so far is sparse and unimpressive, it's really too soon to say that no attractive candidate will emerge.
If faced with a perfect storm, what could Candidate Obama do? One answer: take a lesson from Harry Truman.
Truman had his own perfect storm in 1948. Truman came into office riding on the immense popularity of FDR and the fervor of a country at war against history's most odious villains. Truman's popularity in 1946 broke all polling records as he presided over the Allies' final, unconditional victory.
All that changed rapidly in the following months. The US went through a sharp recession, as usually happens when the economy adjusts from war time to peace time. From years of depression and war, the US had its highest-ever ratio of national debt to GDP (120% by 1948, up from 40% through the Great Depression years and under 20% from before the Depression). In order to rapidly reduce the deficit, Truman had no alternative but to rapidly demobilize the massive military establishment created to wage World War II. Although this turned out to be a prescient move to better position the US military for the Cold War, it put far more men back into the civilian labor force than it could absorb at once.
History records that the economic setback was only temporary. In the wave of prosperity the US enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s, the national debt to GDP ratio steadily fell. Despite the Cold War, it fell below the Great Depression 40% level by 1965, and despite Vietnam and stagflation got as low as 31% by 1982. Events since then are another story: we are back to 110%, near the World War II peak. But that's grist for other blog posts.
Meanwhile, Truman faced the gravest international challenges. The aphorism "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" has a serious problem: what happens when the first enemy goes away? Then the enemy of your old enemy is not necessarily your friend: he may become your new enemy. That's just what happened when the Soviet Union, our most militarily important ally in World War II, had its own ideas about its role in the world after the defeat of the Axis. And with crises in country after country in Europe, it came to a head in 1948.
Finally, Truman faced popular Republican New York Governor Thomas Dewey. He brought a resume as a crusading, crime-busting federal prosecutor and district attorney. Dewey led the moderate wing of the Republican Party. As governor, Dewey established a reputation for honesty as he cut taxes, raised aid to education, increased state workers' pay, and still cut the state's debt - a record any modern governor would envy.
As the GOP nominee in 1944, Dewey faced the impossible task of unseating FDR in war time. He garnered 46% of the popular vote, an impressive showing against fierce odds, better than any other Republican who faced FDR. As the youngest GOP presidential nominee in history, Dewey had time on his side.
Dewey had the record. In 1948, he had the positioning to appeal to both GOP and Democratic moderates, losing his pre-war isolationism to become an internationalist and Cold Warrior. He resisted the siren call of the Far Right to engage in "Red baiting" with the Truman administration, which further burnished his appeal to the Center.
Finally, the Democratic Party split three ways, with Henry Wallace making an independent run from the Left and Strom Thurmond running as a Dixiecrat. It seemed that all Dewey had to do was to look Presidential and avoid any gaffes, and he would be on the way to the White House.
So how did Harry Truman face down his perfect storm? By blaming Congress.
In the elections of 1946, Democrats suffered an even worse "shellacking" than 2010. Republicans gained 55 seats and control of the House of Representatives; they also gained 12 seats and control of the Senate for the first time since the Hoover administration. Joe McCarthy came to the Senate in that election; the first televised Congressional hearings were the House Un-American Activities Committee confronting Alger Hiss with Whittaker Chambers.
The 80th Congress passed important national security legislation, but very little of Truman's domestic agenda made headway. Democrats retained enough seats in the Senate so that the threat of filibuster meant that the desire of the Right to repeal New Deal laws and programs would go nowhere. But that did not stop Congressional Republicans from engaging in rhetorical over-reach.
Truman perceived that the 80th Congress moved not only to the right of the country, but to the right of mainstream Republicans, like Dewey. On July 15, 1948, as the Democratic convention dragged on into the wee hours, Truman struck. At 1:45 a.m., Truman electrified the delegates by using the power of the President under Article II, Section 3, to call a special session of Congress to challenge the Republican majority to live up to its own platform pledges.
Pegged for July 26, "Turnip Day" in Truman's native Missouri, the two-week session became a predictable political circus. Republicans blocked all action, and the special session accomplished nothing.
Which was exactly what Truman wanted. For the rest of the election season, Truman excoriated the "Do nothing Eightieth Congress" in one stump speech after another. The press hardly noticed Truman's scrappy campaign until almost the end, but public support for Truman rallied from 36% approval in the polls to a 49.6% to 45.1% victory over Dewey. Third-party candidates split the remaining 5.3%.
Not only did Truman have the last laugh over the press for premature "Dewey Defeats Truman" headlines, but he had the Congress in place to push through his "Fair Deal" program. The Fair Deal integrated the armed forces, promoted housing, extended Social Security, raised the minimum wage, finally outlawed child labor, established the National Science Foundation, and much more. Truman did not get everything he wanted in the Fair Deal. But by running against Congress in 1948, he not only got another term, but a largely cooperative Congress.
In giving up on his campaign pledge to try the 9/11 conspirators in civilian court, Obama blamed an obstreperous Congress. Is Obama already channeling Truman?