Not that my father has given me any grief, but Harry S. Truman is his favorite President. The former haberdasher is not my favorite executive, but he is not my least favorite either. For me, Truman is in my top ten…most likely at seven or eight (these things fluctuate you know). He is the perfect example of a president whose approval ratings have risen over the course of fifty-six years since he left office. They were the lowest of the lows until a certain chief executive just left office. But when you look at Truman, there a lot of similarities to look at between President Truman and President Obama. And I do mean A lot.
When FDR passed in April of 1945, Truman was a little known Vice-President, and before that he was a little known Senator from Missouri. He had served his country in World War I and had led the Truman Committee in the Senate which saved the government $15 billion. But aside from those two instances in the limelight, the world, or for that matter, FDR, hardly knew anything about him. The same can be said for Obama.
1. Two Wars to Win – When Truman ascended to the Presidency, he was more shocked than anyone else. He inherited a 2 conflicts – one on it’s last legs; the other could take years. The War in Europe was just about over and American and Soviet troops has pushed into Germany and were knocking on Hitler’s bunker door. Within a month, Hitler would be dead and the US and Soviets would be dividing up the continent into free and communist states. The war against the Empire of Japan was not so easy. An invasion of the home islands could result in anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million American lives, and not to mention, the cost in Japanese lives. The only use of nuclear weapons in history occurred in August of 1945 when Truman saw an option to bring a quick end to the war. Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki consecutively did result in the surrender of the Japanese aboard the USS Missouri. For Obama, nuclear weapons are not an option. The War in Iraq is at an iffy stage. While the surge of 2008 proved to help matters in the region, the real help came in money paid to insurgents not to kill us. According to Thomas Ricks, that is the gamble that General Petraeus is counting on. After we leave, who is to say the Iraqis don’t start killing each other again. As for Afghanistan, the Taliban have been digging in the mountains since the days of the Mujaheddin and the Soviet occupation – much like the Japanese were preparing to do before the bombs. I don’t know how you are gonna smoke them out. It didn’t work in Vietnam and it is doubtful to work in Afghanistan. The conflict in Afghanistan is something we may not see the end of for a long time. Part of me says, turn it over to the Pakistanis and Afghans but neither government is stable enough right now and may not be for a long time.
2. The Economy – Coming out of World War II, the biggest fear the American Public had was that they thought the country was going into another depression. Inflation took hold and Truman had to bite the bullet and attack things head on. Truman threatened to take over the railways if a strike by workers took place. He also told the workers they would be drafted if they went on strike. Obama’s problems are a little different and probably a little worse. In 1946, there were no shortage of manufacturing jobs but the prices of post war goods and services that had been rationed for four years skyrocketed. In 2009, we are not dealing with inflated prices, but deflated homes. Obama could have the Treasury Department buy up $350 billion in home loans and renegotiate with each and every lender and lendee, but that could be an immense undertaking, a risky one, and ultimately a worthwhile one which would help stabilize the housing market.
3. Israel – In 1947, the newly set aside land for the Jews became embroiled when the British announced they were going to leave in 1948. Arab armies massed at the border, and in 1948, the state of Israel was born and for the last 60 years, a tenuous situation has ebbed and flowed in the Middle East with some nations refusing to even recognize the existence of Israel. Truman set the precedent of supporting Israel and every American President has followed suit. Now, the questions have not become whether Israel should exist but how much of it should be a Palestinian state and whether the two can co-exist. As for Obama, he has publicly stated his support for Israel, but I don’t know if he will let the leadership of Israel do whatever they please to the Palestinians. Special Envoy George Mitchell was Obama’s first choice, and one of his first tasks is to deal with both sides (notice the lack of Hillary in dealing with issue).
4. Kashmir/Pakistan/India – In 1947, India gained its independence from the British Empire. Soon, the partitioning of India resulted in bloody deaths and a conflict which has never really ended between the Pakistanis and the Indians over the territory of Kashmir. In the midst of a burgeoning Cold War, Truman and the US became allies with the Pakistanis and a tenuous relationship has existed for 60 years between the two nations. Now, add in that both sides have nuclear arsenals, the Mumbai attacks, Muslim extremism, and a weak Pakistani democracy, the situation is ripe for conflict. Where India has thrived in the global economy, Pakistan has not. The disparity of wealth is something Obama will have to deal with in all of the Muslim world, not just in Pakistan.
5. The Rabid Right - Truman was also bipartisan with his Republican brethren when it came to foreign affairs, but not so when it came to domestic ones. The same can be said for Obama. Although Obama has met with Republican leaders, the relationship is strained at best because of the passage or ARRA and the soon to be disbursement of the remaining TARP funds. In the late 40s and early 50s, the House Un-American Activities (HUAC) committee and later Senator Joseph McCarthy staged a series of congressional hearings on communism at home. It made stars out of many including HUAC member Richard Nixon and witness Ronald Reagan. Now, Rush Limbaugh, a star who has risen, fallen, been to detox, lost weight and put it back on, is in a tizzy because of the $787 billion ARRA while he is OK with multi-trillion dollar spending deficit of the Bush regime…OK. I better stop here.
6. Farmers – Dr. Bruce Field has chronicled Truman’s relationship with the Farmers in his well researched and well written Harvest of Dissent. The farmers did not like Truman’s foreign policy and made no bones about telling him so. Unfortunately, the Korean War split the National Farmer’s Union into two camps. It did not stop farmers from being a political voice to be reckoned with. It is a little different today for Obama. No one has benefited more from the collapse of property values more than farmers. Not only are they happy they have to pay less taxes, they are happy that people still have to eat and that there are lots of people to eat. Where Obama and the farmers will clash in the coming years will be with regards to subsidies and also whether or not to continue subsidies for ethanol production. It should make for some interesting dialogue.
7. China – Of all of the criticism leveled at Truman during his tenure, none was more damaging than “How we lost China”. When Mao in the Communists sent Chiang Kai Shek across the sea to Taiwan, many in America were shocked at the outcome and at Truman. For Obama, the task is how to deal with China in a global economy and how they now control a large portion of our debt. It’s scary how the world works somedays.
8. Miscellaneous – The similarities are almost endless. You could throw in NATO, race relations, baseball, the Fair Deal (National Health Insurance), and how to use the UN to advance American Foreign Policy. It is almost like looking in/at a mirror.
Lessons for Obama from Harry Truman
1. Be who you are -
What my father most loves about Truman was that Truman was a tough little guy who didn’t seem to be changed by Washington. He was actually quite perturbed by it. He never spoke out of character, and he used his swear words judiciously –
“I fired him [MacArthur] because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President… I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”
—Harry S. Truman, quoted in Time magazine
How many Americans can call a World War II hero a dumb SOB and get away with it? But then again, I don’t have that high an opinion of MacArthur in the first place. But I digress…
2. The Buck Does Stop Here
Obama and no one else is responsible for the actions of his administration. Geithner’s press conference last week, or lack thereof, was a pithy way to say nothing. A President has to do more than that and the people deserve better.
3. A Lot of Pans on the Stove
Truman not only had a lot of things to deal with but many were at the same time and many were about the same two issues: Communism and the Economy. Obama may not like the fact that he has just about as many pans on the stove as Truman did between 1947-1950 but he can’t change the fact he does.
4. The Truman Doctrine
We can’t fight every war and not every war needs to be fought. But we can aid those in need and reshape the world to be our allies by our actions and their choice rather than by fear of our force.
I have no clue what an Obama Doctrine would look like at this point. The world is a much different place today than it was in 1946.
5. Right, Virtue, and Creativity
For all of Truman’s actions, they were done because they were the right thing to do and history has proved that Truman’s actions were just. He had to get a little creative at times to do them, but he did. From executive orders to airlifts to treaties to envoys, where there is a will to do right, you can always find a way.
Other Presidential Lessons for Obama Series
John F. Kennedy
George H.W. Bush