Obama conjures 'Give 'em hell Harry'

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 22, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Has President Barack Obama been channeling Harry Truman?

Facing long odds in the 1948 election, Missouri's political patron saint put Republicans in his campaign bull's-eye and unloaded on the "do-nothing Congress." Truman won, and conventional wisdom took a beating.

No one would ever confuse the cerebral and given-to-compromise former law school lecturer who now occupies the White House with "Give 'em hell Harry."

But Obama, whose approval rating hit an all-time low this month just as his re-election campaign gears up, has borrowed a page from his feisty predecessor's playbook.

He hasn't replicated Truman's whistle-stop campaign tour — not yet, anyway. But from Capitol Hill to the White House Rose Garden to speeches around the country, Obama has been nagging and needling Congress to pass his jobs bill.

"I intend to take that message to every corner of this country," the president told a joint session of Congress this month. "And I ask every American who agrees to lift your voice: Tell the people who are gathered here tonight that you want action now. Tell Washington that doing nothing is not an option."

Whether the tactic will win enough votes to pass the bill, or even something close, is doubtful. Republicans have shown little desire to help the president notch any kind of legislative victory.

"That's what the president is setting them up for," said Stephen Wayne, an expert in the presidency at Georgetown University. "If they pass the jobs bill, fine. If they don't pass anything, then there's the Truman label."

Just scoring some political points might be enough. While the public's overall view of Congress is pretty dismal, Republican lawmakers merit only a 19 percent job approval rating, according to the latest CBS/New York Times Poll.

"They are an inviting target," Democratic political strategist Steve Murphy said. "I don't think the president has any alternative to this strategy because House Republicans have made it very clear they're not going to compromise. He has to show the base and persuadable voters that he has a strong commitment to a set of principles and he will fight for them."

Supporters have welcomed a more aggressive Obama. They hope that finding his inner Truman will help him shore up his base and reignite the passion he stoked three years ago.

Republicans are dubious, if not outright dismissive.

"It's his only hope," said pollster Ed Goeas, who's working for GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann.

Pollster David Winston, an adviser to congressional Republicans, said that with a struggling economy and persistently high unemployment, "to blame somebody else for your inability to get things done is not going to play well with the public."

Truman had worked a plow and clerked in a haberdashery, and he owed his rise in politics to Kansas City's legendary Tom Pendergast political machine.

Obama edited the Harvard Law Review and worked Chicago's streets as a community organizer. But he was something of an outsider and un-beholden to the Windy City's political power structure.

Despite their differences, they share — at least rhetorically — the populist streak that's part of the Democratic Party's DNA.

Truman rarely minced words. At a campaign stop in Iowa more than 60 years ago, he railed against the "gluttons of privilege," whom he blasted for "putting up fabulous sums of money to elect a Republican administration."

Amid Republican accusations of "class warfare," Obama has been sounding like a union shop steward.

"Middle-class families shouldn't pay higher taxes than millionaires and billionaires," he said in his Rose Garden speech this week about the economy. "I reject the idea that asking a hedge fund manager to pay the same tax rate as a plumber or a teacher is class warfare."

Democratic consultant Marc Farinella, who ran the president's 2008 campaign in North Carolina, said the administration had turned up the heat because it "felt burned earlier by criticism that it didn't make the difference in philosophy crystal clear. They are determined to not make that mistake again."

Truman had an easier time attacking Congress in 1948 because Republicans ran the House of Representatives and the Senate. Now they control just the House, so Obama has to be careful not to wound his Democratic allies when he tosses a dart at Capitol Hill.

"So the speaker says we can't have it 'my way or the highway,' and then basically says, 'My way — or the highway,' "the president said in the Rose Garden, referring to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "That's not smart."

Still, even if Obama's Truman-esque tough talk about Congress and the economy rallies his base, Winston cautioned, he'd still need the political center to win. But then so would the pollster's own party.

"This isn't simply a cakewalk for the Republicans," Winston said.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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