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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Biden ’24 Is a Better Bet Than Truman ’48

I love historical analogies for campaigns and elections, and looked at a familiar precedent at New York:

It’s probably a by-product of our unstable and fractious political environment that observers constantly reach for historical precedents to anchor today’s dizzying developments in patterns we can recognize. So I am highly sympathetic to Nate Cohn’s effort in a New York Times column to suggest that Joe Biden’s reelection bid might resemble Harry Truman’s in 1948.

Truman is an eternal role model for embattled presidents whose reelection prospects seemed doomed; his upset win over Thomas Dewey is the perpetual consolation of struggling incumbents. It’s no accident that when Donald Trump was badly trailing Biden in the polls during the summer of 2020, his fans began predicting a Truman-style comeback.

Cohn, however, is focused on a particular analogy between 1948 and 2024: the fact that, like Biden, Truman struggled to overcome intense unhappiness over rapidly rising prices at a time when other economic indicators were quite positive:

“In the era of modern economic data, Harry Truman was the only president besides Joe Biden to oversee an economy with inflation over 7 percent while unemployment stayed under 4 percent and G.D.P. growth kept climbing. Voters weren’t overjoyed then, either. Instead, they saw Mr. Truman as incompetent, feared another depression and doubted their economic future, even though they were at the dawn of postwar economic prosperity.”

What Cohn wants us to understand is that Truman’s remarkable comeback was accompanied by an intense presidential focus on fighting inflation:

“You might well remember from your U.S. history classes that he blamed the famous ‘Do Nothing Congress’ for not enacting his agenda.

“What you might not have learned in history class is that Mr. Truman attacked the ‘Do Nothing Congress’ first and foremost for failing to do anything about prices. The text of his speech at the Democratic convention does not quite do justice to his impassioned attack on Republicans for failing to extend price controls in 1946, and for their platform on prices.”

Cohn notes that Biden cannot emulate certain assets Truman had in his efforts to bring down inflation while blaming his Republican opponents for its persistence: a mechanism, government price controls, that was popular then but entirely disreputable now and a Congress totally controlled by the GOP, making it as culpable as the president for hard times.

But while Biden may not have some of the raw materials Truman used to build his remarkable comeback, he also doesn’t share some of the distinct problems the 33rd president faced.

Yes, Biden is coping with dissension in his party’s ranks but not the sort of formal crack-up that led to not one but two competing ex-Democratic presidential tickets in 1948: the States’ Rights Democratic (a.k.a. Dixiecrat) ticket led by Strom Thurmond, which attracted southern segregationists, and ex-Vice-President Henry Wallace’s left-bent Progressives. Independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is indeed an ex-Democrat from a famous Democratic family, but it appears he is taking away at least as many votes from the Republican column as from his former party.

Biden also suffers from a dyspeptic post-pandemic public mood that is similar in some respects to the angst afflicting Americans after the euphoric unity of World War II. That’s bad for any incumbent president. But Truman had the additional handicap of his party having controlled the White House for 16 years, the longest stretch since the post–Civil War era of Republican dominance. Today, the United States is in an extended period of exceptional balance between the two major parties, which have each held the presidency for exactly half of the 21st century and shared control of Congress as often as not.

But the most important difference between 1948 and 2024 is the identity of the likely Republican nominee. Yes, Dewey was a repeat nominee as Trump will be, having run a respectable if losing campaign against FDR in 1944. But Dewey, who was the governor of New York, was as remote from Trump in his temperament and ideological inclinations as is possible to imagine. The living embodiment of the Republican Establishment of his day, Dewey was relatively progressive on domestic-policy issues (he famously debated his most formidable primary opponent, Harold Stassen, on the single topic of Stassen’s proposal that the Communist Party should be outlawed, strongly opposing the idea) and resolutely internationalist in foreign policy. In sharp contrast to the perpetually turbulent MAGA movement founder, Dewey ran a quiet, even complacent general-election campaign that heavily relied on the poll-driven belief that he would win easily. And while Truman did indeed run a strongly partisan campaign attacking the opposing party, most of his fire was trained on congressional Republicans rather than Dewey himself.

There is zero question that Biden is staking his reelection prospects on making 2024 a referendum on Trump as much as on his own performance as president. And while the kind of sharp improvement in perceptions of the economy that helped rescue Truman would also enormously benefit Biden, he may not have to become all that popular to win.

In his essay on 1948 and 2024, Cohn hints at one factor that was crucial in 1948 and could be equally important this year: a national craving for “normalcy.” He doesn’t go into this issue in detail, but it’s clear in retrospect that Republicans had high expectations of victory in 1948 in no small part because they assumed voters wanted calm and stable governance after the excitement of the Great Depression and World War II (much as British voters rejected Winston Churchill’s long-governing Tories at the very end of that war). One reason Truman won is that he successfully warned swing voters that a Republican administration would junk Democratic policies (not just wartime price controls but, crucially, farm price supports) they had come to rely on as a normal part of economic life.

One of the big intangibles about 2024 is whether swing voters ultimately perceive a Trump comeback as auguring a return to the pre-pandemic status quo ante (especially in terms of prices and interest rates) as less fearful than another term for an octogenarian incumbent thought to be less than fully in control — or instead make the same calculations many did in 2020 when Biden offered a safe alternative to the perpetually alarming 45th president. I’d say the odds of the latter contingency are pretty high so long as the economy continues to improve even modestly. It’s far too early to predict happy days will be here again for Democrats, but it’s no time for excessive pessimism either.

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