President Obama's second term is already beleaguered by the same barrier that stymied his first four years — a Congress that seems unable or unwilling to get its most serious business done. He looks longingly if not overly optimistically toward the 2014 congressional elections to bring him a Democratic majority on Capitol Hill that may be a pipedream.
A previous Democratic president named Harry Truman knew how to capitalize on what he famously called a "Do-nothing Congress" in 1948. He made it a whipping boy that helped him pull off his huge upset for a second term over Republican nominee Tom Dewey.
In 1946, Truman lost majority control in both houses, a 58-seat GOP bulge in the House and a four-seat edge in the Senate, and was widely predicted to be a political dead duck. Conservative Republican Sen. Robert A. Taft wrote that "if Truman wanted to elect a Republican Congress (in 1948) he could not be doing a better job." Taft's wife Martha chimed in with the memorable line: "To err is Truman."
To dig him out of the hole, presidential adviser Clark Clifford wrote a prophetic memo: "The administration should select the issues upon which there will be a conflict with the (Republican) majority in Congress. It can assume that will get no major part of its own program approved."
The administration, Clifford argued, "must display a label which reads 'No compromise.' ... We want the president to be in position to receive the credit for whatever they do accomplish while also being in position to criticize the Congress for being obstructionists for failing to comply with other recommendations."
Truman responded by calling the Republican-controlled Congress into a special post-convention session in 1948 that essentially underscored the GOP resistance. When it ended and a reporter asked the president if he would "say it was a do-nothing Congress," Truman grabbed the phrase and ran with it throughout the fall campaign.
Truman proceeded in his whistle-stopping across the country to "give 'em hell," telling farmers that Wall Street manipulators and their Republican allies in Congress "gave you that greatest of all depressions" and "stuck a pitchfork in the farmer's back." He pleaded: "I wonder how many times you have to be hit on the head before you find out who's hitting you. ... These Republican gluttons of privilege are cold men. ... What they have taken away from you thus far would only be an appetizer for the economic tapeworm of big business."
In response to all this, Dewey was largely silent, lulled by polls suggesting his election was assured, though his profile fit to a tee Truman's painting of confident and contended Republicans. On election night, Truman brought in with him Democratic control of both houses of Congress.
In a sense, in 2012, Mr. Obama benefited likewise from the image of Mitt Romney as a rich, complacent and privileged Republican, but he failed to regain control of the House lost in the 2010 midterm elections. His own efforts to paint the obstructionist Republican House in the do-nothing mold fell short, possibly because he continued his illusion that he still somehow could do business with the GOP naysayers.
Harry Truman, by contrast, seldom if ever fooled himself about the nature of the partisan opposition he faced. His brassy and man-in-the-street manner was more naturally suited to giving 'em hell than is Mr. Obama's reason-together demeanor and rhetoric only occasionally ruffled by confrontational, partisan campaign-style chidings.
In the Obama administration, the Harry Truman role is more vividly and consistently played by Vice President Joe Biden. Behind the scenes one of President Obama's most effective intermediaries with the Republican congressional leaders, Mr. Biden also does a passing version of the Harry of 1948 in the traditional vice-presidential political assignment as partisan attacker.
If the do-little status quo on today's Capitol Hill is to change for Mr. Obama's last presidential years, it may require him to don Truman's hat and pugnacious style between now and the 2014 congressional elections. Only by restoring Democratic control of Congress is he likely to have any reasonable chance of building a more impressive list of accomplishments by the time he leaves the Oval Office.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun