Lessons for Obama in Tru­man’s di­vided govern­ment

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - THE SUN­DAY TAKE Dan Balz balzd@wash­post.com

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.

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