Obama Takes a Page From Truman's '48 Campaign

“Labor did it” is one of the reasons Harry Truman cited for his celebrated upset election victory in 1948.

As he heads into a presidential year with polls showing him barely leading or in some cases trailing “Generic Republican,” President Obama yesterday sent a not-too-subtle hint that he was counting on fired-up labor unions and their members to help put him over the top.  Although his Labor Day address in Detroit was devoid of any fresh policy items, Obama made it clear he was taking a page from Truman’s ’48 campaign book: He would run the kind of gloves-off, hard-punching campaign against Republicans in Congress that energized labor enough to help Truman win re-election as well as recapture control of Congress from the Republicans.

Amid chants of “Four More Years!” the President told a crowd at the General Motors plant parking lot that “working folks shouldn’t be taken advantage of–so we passed tough financial reform that ended the days of taxpayer bailouts, and stopped credit card companies from gouging you with hidden fees and unfair rate hikes.”

He took some shots, Truman-style, at his political opponents, declaring “You’ve got Republicans saying you’re the ones exploiting working families. Imagine that…”

Obama even invoked Truman’s Labor Speech in Detroit in 1948, which he said Sen. Carl Levin (D.-Mich.) showed him on the flight to Michigan.  Pointing out how “things haven’t changed much” in 63 years, Obama recalled how Truman spoke of Americans voting for “some folks into Congress who weren’t very friendly to labor. And he pointed out that some working folks and even some union members voted these folks in. And now they were learning their lesson. And he pointed out that–and I’m quoting here, ‘the gains of labor were not accomplished at the expense of the rest of the nation. Labor’s gains contributed to the nation’s general prosperity.’”

Truman campaigned hard in ’48 against the Taft-Hartley Act, which mandated stricter monitoring of union activities and was enacted by Republicans over his veto. Obama yesterday invoked similar irritants to labor, declaring “[s]o when I hear some of these folks trying to take collective bargaining rights away, trying to pass so-called “right to work” laws for private sector workers.”  To no one’s surprise, this prompted “boos” from the audience.

Writing in Harry Truman and the Crisis Presidency, historian Bert Cochran concluded that Truman’s 1948 campaign strategy, “beginning with the veto of the Taft-Hartley Act, facilitated the rally of these battalions [labor] behind his banner.  His electioneering set the tone and provided the themes of a fighting, quasi-populist campaign.”

“A fighting, quasi-populist campaign.”  That’s certainly what the President sounded like he was invoking on Labor Day.  It will be interesting to see if he does the same in his address to Congress on Thursday, and in future addresses as America gets closer to the election year.