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Published September 25 2012

Forum editorial: Truman would love the 112th

A couple of generations ago, President Harry Truman scored political points by excoriating what he called the “do-nothing” 80th Congress. Give-’em-Hell Harry would have loved to take on 112th Congress, which skipped out of Washington, D.C., last week with very little of substance accomplished.

Among the “very little” was a stop-gap measure to keep the government running for six months. But the rancorous House and Senate did not get serious about the fiscal cliff looming ahead. Congress ducked the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts and automatic spending cuts agreed to by Congress and the Obama administration. If nothing is done quickly, consensus among many economists is the nation will slide back into recession.

If that failure to act is not enough to hold members of Congress in lowest esteem since such measures have been taken, they also failed to agree (or even consider) a Postal Service rescue package, the five-year farm bill (passed by the Senate, blocked by Republican House leadership), and none of 12 spending bills. Not one.

Congressional defenders explain that the presidential election and hotly contested congressional campaigns hamstrung Congress. Because of what they perceive as conflicting messages from voters in the elections of 2008 and 2010, many members have opted to wait for results in November 2012. That waiting game has exacerbated the deep philosophical and political divisions in Congress, which are reflections of divisions in the nation, they say.

That may be so, but the job approval rating for Congress is at an all-time low: 12 percent. By contrast, President Barack Obama’s approval rating has been rising, and now stands at better than 50 percent in a compilation of results from latest polls.

Truman was not the most popular president when he ran against Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. Vice President Truman had ascended to the presidency after the death of Franklin Roosevelt early in FDR’s fourth term. The betting at the time was Dewey would win in a walk.

Truman pulled out all the stops, including his “do-nothing” Congress line. Against the odds and to the surprise of the pundits of the day, he won.

The parallel is not perfect, but Obama can take a lesson from Truman. In addition to facing a candidate in former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney who is running a Dewey-like less-than-stellar campaign, the president has a Congress most Americans, of whatever political stripe, disdain. Despite the president’s failure to revitalize the economy and to keep a pledge to lead the nation into a “post-partisan” era, he’s been dealt a pretty good hand.


Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.