Though each election is unique and unrepeatable, there were similarities that invite comparison.
After the spiritual and financial strains of a long war, the nation dreamed of a period of peace and prosperity only to be plunged into a deep recession in 1946-47 from which it was beginning to recover while bracing for a long, cold war against Soviet communism.
Though the threat posed by the Soviet Union was a more existential threat than the challenge of containing and defeating Islamic terrorism, both Truman and Obama were tested by dangerous foes.
Truman refused to back down when Russia cut off supply lines to Berlin, organizing an airlift to feed the beleaguered citizens of the city. Obama took a chance on finding the mastermind of 9/11 and ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
When Franklin Roosevelt died in April 1944, having rescued the nation from Depression and pointed the Allies to certain victory in World War II, there were young parents who couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t president.
His death created a political vacuum, which right and left wings of the party sought to fill. And Roosevelt’s mantle swamped the peppy, plain-spoken, little vice president from Missouri, a picture made for cartoonists of the time.
Both presidents faced implacable opposition from Congress, Truman from both Houses and Obama from the cult-like Tea Party Caucus in the House. But the Democratic Party in 1948 was more divided than it is today.
Former Vice President Henry Wallace led insurgents from the left who favored more conciliatory relations with the Soviet Union, which wasn’t much to worry about as American electoral soil had proven inhospitable to the far left.
Because Truman had insisted on a civil-rights plank in the party platform and had integrated the armed forces by executive order, he expected Southern defections and got them in the Dixiecrat Convention in Birmingham, which nominated South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond.
After a convention ringing with racist rhetoric, Alabama chose to be most emphatic in its love affair with defeat by erasing Truman’s name from the ballot. In Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, Dixiecrats occupied the space of the main Democratic ticket on the ballots.
There was even a third splinter in the party, a boomlet to nominate Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. House Minority Leader Sam Rayburn disagreed, “No, won’t do. Good man, wrong business.” The general regretted the invitation.
Obama knows something about pundits and prognosticators who said that he could not be re-elected with unemployment above 8 percent.
Truman had it even worse. No one but Harry Truman thought he could win. The Roper Poll stopped polling in September, asserting the nation had already decided and there was no way Truman could win.
Only two things favored the incumbent in ’48. First was his decision to make the whistle-stop train campaign from coast to coast.
“In order to circumvent the gloom and pessimism being spread by the polls,” he wrote in his memoir, “I decided that I would go directly to the people in all parts of the country with a personal message from the President.”
Also in his favor was the campaign of Gov. Dewey, which was so timid, so frightened of any controversy that might affect his inevitable coronation, that the only memorable line from his campaign was the infamous remark, “You know that your future is ahead of you.”
An editorial in The Louisville Courier-Journal summed it up: “No presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his major speeches can be boiled down to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.”
As people in cities and small towns saw their president in person, standing on the train’s rear platform, and heard his fighting speeches lambasting that “No ’count, do-nothing Eightieth Congress,” he began to hear a transcontinental chorus, “Give ’em Hell, Harry!”
Gallup, which continued polling until the last weekend, saw a 17-point Dewey lead dwindle to single digits in late October. On Nov. 2, Truman won with 49.6 percent of the popular vote and 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189.
The nation also spoke decisively to the racist ticket. Thurmond got 2.04 percent of the popular vote.
Voters also gave Truman a majority of the House and Senate, a lesson from history for the cool and cerebral incumbent. If Obama is to avoid continued stagnation, he needs to ask voters to help him end it.
He needs to lambaste the “no ’count, no-good, do-nothing 112th Congress” and ask voters, “If you want a nation at peace and an economy roaring with vitality, give me a Congress I can work with.”
He then would have earned the chorus, “Give ’em hell, Obama!”
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.