Obama's Losses Might Make Him a Truman: Amity Shlaes

Dec. 1 (Bloomberg) — You might think that President Barack Obama's falling popularity will condemn him to a low rank among presidents with so little to show in terms of legislative accomplishment after a year in office.

Six weeks into the job, Obama was telling labor leaders he was sure that the Democrats' radical union bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, would pass, making it easier for unions to organize workers by ending secret balloting. Now even Democrats are acknowledging the bill may not make it.

Cap and trade, the administration's green-energy legislation, was already in trouble before the news that hacked e-mails showed Climate Research Unit scientists at the U.K.'s University of East Anglia were concealing evidence that might contradict global-warming alarmism.

Even the legislation that the Senate takes up this week, the president's health-care reform, may not make its pass-by-Christmas deadline. In short, Obama looks like a failure.

That may be true only in the short-term. The president's 2009 defeats could help to reserve him a place in the presidential pantheon. There even is the chance that the more Obama loses now, the higher his ranking later.

Consider two Democratic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Harry Truman. Today these presidents rank high in the charts. A C-SPAN poll rates them Nos. 15 and five, respectively. Clinton is the dean of foreign policy, and if Truman were alive, he'd give a six-figure speech every day of the week.

Early Duds

Then, consider these presidents' early trajectories.

Clinton came into office with goals remarkably similar to Obama's. Strengthen the economy through industrial policy. Apply stimulus to end the jobless recovery. Make the wealthy pay more in taxes. Reform health care. Personifying these concepts was the Rahm Emanuel of the 1990s, Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

The industrial policy shift turned out to be tiny. The big stimulus got voted down. Likewise Clinton's energy tax. The tax increase was far milder than progressives would have liked. Health care — well, we know what happened.

The future looked dark for Clinton. After his first 100 days in office, he had the support of 55 percent of the voters, well below Obama's 67 percent, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The Pew data showed 37 percent of Americans registered disapproval or strong disapproval for Clinton at his 100-day mark. The 1994 midterms handed Congress to Newt Gingrich and the Republicans.

Heading to Center

Clinton duly steamed over to the political center, dropping Reich overboard. Today what Americans remember about Clinton was his moderation, his signature on a bill that ended welfare as we knew it, his endorsement of the 20 percent capital-gains rate, his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement and his balanced budget.

It all distressed Reich so much that he titled his memoir "Locked in the Cabinet." Certain details have been challenged, but the book is worth reading for its rendering of progressive frustration during Clinton's first term. Reich's recounting of his farewell meeting with Clinton captures the sense of betrayal.

"We tried, didn't we?" Reich recalls Clinton saying. "We did some good things."

"Oh yeah," Reich remembers replying wryly. "And you'll have four more years to do even more."

The case of Truman is more dramatic. Give 'em Hell Harry started out as a progressive. His Fair Deal was supposed to extend Roosevelt's New Deal.

Friend of Unions

Truman supported the old Wagner Act of the 1930s, a law that permitted the closed shop (only union members need apply) and severely constrained corporations' ability to defend themselves. He tried to block Congress's bid to weaken the Wagner Act with the Taft-Hartley Act, which he vetoed as a "bad bill."

Like Hillary Clinton, Truman made much of what he considered to be a national health-care emergency. Like Obama, Truman backed a public option in his own health-care plan.

Fortunately for Truman's good name, Congress chose to override his veto of Taft-Hartley. Lawmakers also rejected his health-care plan. These checks freed Truman to become famous for things like promulgating the policy known as containment, to limit the spread of communism, and recognizing the state of Israel. It also allowed him the posthumous pleasure of becoming the subject of an adulatory biography by one of the nation's premier historians, David McCullough.

With a Difference

Obama does differ fundamentally from Clinton or Truman. After all, he had no Ross Perot in the 2008 race; he didn't squeak into office as Clinton did in his first term. He took his majority squarely.

Nor did Obama land in the Oval Office by accident, because of the death of a president, or win a victory so close that the Chicago Daily Tribune's editors called the election wrong (Truman in 1945 and 1948, respectively).

But Obama displays one overriding similarity to Clinton. He is a law professor. That means he relishes the act of debating policy rather than pursuing any specific policy position. And Obama resembles Truman in that he finds himself turning more to foreign policy than he ever imagined in the first part of his career.

So Obama ought to be thanking senators like Jon Kyl and Mitch McConnell, not to mention Sarah Palin, whose book is helping Republican leaders formulate plans for 2010. They will pressure Obama to head to the center, and to look abroad.

As the premature Nobel Peace Prize indicates, the rest of the world wants to remember Obama for his international statesmanship rather than for his tax rates. Defeats at the hands of Republicans, legislative or electoral, may well make that wish come true.

(Amity Shlaes, senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2009 Bloomberg

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