Lessons for Obama in Truman’s divided government
If President Obama and new White House Chief of Staff William Daley are looking for advice on how to think about dealing with the Republicans in Congress, they might consider a virtual visit to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.
There, in the archives, is a nearly 10,000-word memo, dated December 1946, written by presidential adviser James H. Rowe Jr. Truman reportedly kept a copy of the memo in his desk for reference as he battled the 80th Congress, where as a result of the 1946 midterm elections both houses were newly in the hands of the Republicans.
“Presidential leadership, if it means anything, means no more than how to lead the people only as fast as they will follow,” Rowe wrote. “ The history of every administration shows that in the final analysis, a president has but one weapon— public opinion.”
In the memo, Rowe tackles the topic of presidential vs. congressional powers and the specific question of whether Truman should pursue a course of cooperation, as many people were encouraging him to do at the time, or expect and embrace conflict. Those same issues have dominated discussions since the self-described shellacking that Obama and his party took in November’s midterms.
The recent lame-duck session suggests that cooperation might be possible in the coming year. Obama and the Republicans forged a compromise to extend the Bush-era tax cuts (to the chagrin of many Democrats) and the president won Republican support in the Senate for ratification of the New START pact.
Rowe said there would be some opportunities for cooperation between Truman and the Republican-controlled 80th Congress. But his principal conclusion was that, expressions of goodwill and cooperative rhetoric aside, confrontation between the president and the congressional opposition was inevitable and probably necessary to preserve the powers of the presidency and the political standing of the incumbent.
The president should always recognize, Rowe advised, that his strongest weapon in the daily conflict with Congress— and the key to maintaining his political support— was not the power to negotiate deals behind closed doors but rather the unique platform that the White House offers for shaping public opinion.
The memo is a detailed analysis of both presidential power and the separation of powers. It assumes that the opposition controls both houses of Congress and examines how previous presidents had dealt with divided government. In that sense, there is an important distinction between Truman’s situation and Obama’s.
With the Senate in Democratic hands, Obama has leverage that Truman did not, giving him added ammunition and the potential for more dealmaking. But Rowe is forthright in concluding that, because of the differences between the executive and legislative branches, and the nature of the two-party system, the president must be prepared to hold his ground and not be drawn too easily into backroom deals and concessions that would muddy in the public’s mind where he really stands and confuse his coalition.
Some of Rowe’s words ring as if they were written last month, rather than 64 years ago. “Since the election the opposition leaders . . . have made numerous statements about their attitude toward the administration,” he wrote. “ They have agreed generally that ‘cooperation’ is necessary. But they have made it equally plain that their definition of cooperation is abdication by the executive.”
That has been the thrust of what House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have conveyed in their post-election comments about the need for the White House to yield to the will of the voters. Rowe explains that in his memo.
Members of the opposition party, he noted, have no interest in carrying out the president’s legislative program. “ They believe their party has been given the mandate; that it is up to them and not the executive to set policy,” he wrote. “ The opposition believe also that they can elect their own president two years from now. But the best way to do it is by [showing] the people every day and every way the presumed incompetence of the present administration.”
Rowe also warned Truman of the potential disruption caused by congressional efforts to infiltrate and frustrate the workings of the executive branch — all of which sound familiar given what House leaders have been saying recently.
He wrote: “ They will demand congressional review of executive agency regulations. . . . They intend to investigate countless departments and agencies and war programs. They will request presidential files and require testimony from White House aides as well as departmental representatives.” He added that the president would be forced to resist vigorously or abdicate his powers.
Rowe’s memo captures much about the current moment. On Friday, House leaders began their largely symbolic effort to repeal the president’s new health-care law. Failing that, they will look for ways to block or delay implementation of key aspects of the law. They are preparing to attack the president’s budget, even if some of their loftier goals for cutting spending may seem difficult to achieve. Their investigative machinery, under House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), is cranking up with the goal of undoing executive regulations and rules.
Rowe wasn’t against gestures of cooperation, particularly in the early months of the new Congress. “ The president can be conciliatory in his messages to Congress,” he wrote, specifically citing the State of the Union address as a time to signal willingness to work with Congress. He also outlined for Truman various possible mechanisms that had been talked about for formalizing cooperative efforts with the Congress.
In the end, he rejected all such mechanisms, arguing that they would hinder the president from taking full advantage of the singular power of the presidency. Only the president speaks for all the people, he said. No one in Congress can purport to do so. A president can uniquely affect public opinion— and should use his office to freely and clearly outline his differences with the opposition.
Those insights could be particularly useful to Obama over the next two years. If there was one overarching miscalculation during the president’s first two years in office, it was the assumption that he could lead the public faster than the public was willing to be led. Whether on health care or the economy, Obama acted boldly — and in his view out of necessity— but failed to persuade the public of the rightness of his actions.
Daley warned of this danger more than a year ago, anticipating the losses the Democrats suffered in November. Rowe’s memo is a powerful reminder of what Obama should expect from the new Congress, why confrontation is to be expected and why winning the battle for public opinion should always be in the forefront of his mind.
After all, the 1948 elections turned out well for Truman.
President Obama and his new chief of staff, William Daley, might do well to heed a Truman adviser.