Tuesday, December 12, 2006

George W. Bush and Harry Truman

Sandy Levinson

I have, as faithful readers know, been commenting on the remarkable loss of confidence by most Americans in the Bush presidency and been arguing that it would be desirable if we had a procedure to terminate his presidency through a vote of no confidence. I won't rehearse those arguments. Rather, I think it is interesting--and may even cut a bit against my argument--to compare Bush's figures with those of Harry Truman, who was also a notably unpopular war-time president (far moreso than was the case with LBJ, incidentally). The following are Truman's approval ratings from the initiation of the Korean War up to the last month of his term, January 1953: The first number is "approval," the second "disapproval," the last "no opinon:

12/11-16/52 Gallup 32 56 11
10/9-14/52 Gallup 32 55 13
10/3-10/52 Gallup 33 55 13
7/13-18/52 Gallup 29 59 13
6/15-20/52 Gallup 32 58 10
5/30-6/4/52 Gallup 31 59 10
5/11-16/52 Gallup 27 59 13
4/13-18/52 Gallup 28 59 13
2/9-14/52 Gallup 22 65 13
1/20-25/52 Gallup 25 62 13
1/6-11/52 Gallup 23 67 9
11/11-16/51 Gallup 23 61 16
10/14-19/51 Gallup 29 55 16
9/21-26/51 Gallup 32 54 14
8/3-8/51 Gallup 31 57 12
7/8-13/51 Gallup 29 54 17
6/16-21/51 Gallup 25 59 16
5/19-24/51 Gallup 24 63 12
4/16-21/51 Gallup 24 54 20
3/26-31/51 Gallup 28 57 15
3/4-9/51 Gallup 27 59 14
2/4-9/51 Gallup 26 60 14
1/1-5/51 Gallup 36 49 15
12/3-8/50 Gallup 33 53 13
10/20-25/50 Gallup 41 46 14
10/8-13/50 Gallup 43 36 21
10/1-6/50 Gallup 35 50 15
9/17-22/50 Gallup 35 47 18
8/20-25/50 Gallup 43 32 25
7/30-8/4/50 Gallup 39 45 16
7/9-14/50 Gallup 46 40 15
6/4-9/50 Gallup 37 47 16

These are quite remarkable numbers. The first things one notices is that at no time did Truman have majority approval. Presumably he got a bit of a bounce for responding to the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June, but by the end of the month he's back to below 40%. He spends his last year in office with less than 1/3 approval. George W. Bush, on the contrary, still seems to maintain an approval rate of around 36%, according to today's Washington Post poll, in part because he continues to get remarkable support from Republicans. (On the other hand, three times the number of people strongly disapprove of him as strongly approve.)

So what's the moral of these numbers? 1) We really can afford having a notably unpopular president/commander-in-chief during a time of war. (And, of course, the Korean War was far more costly in terms of US casualties than the Iraq War.) 2) We would have been better off replacing Truman with another Democrat, but whom? Surely not Alben Barkley, who was in the great tradition of VPs one could not possibly imagine as presidents.


Professor Levinson: So what's the moral of these numbers?

I'm not sure I can add anything to what Professor Levinson offesr. But the moral of the post in general is that intellectually honesty includes exploring counter-examples to one's views, in service of truth. Thanks for setting the good example.

It does argue a bit against the grain, since his administration aged well. In general, he is held in high regard by scholars and the public alike in President-ranking polls.

The Gallup poll numbers in the original post certainly point to the dissatisfaction of the public. But discontent of the public is not synonymous with the proposition that "we would have been better off replacing Truman with another Democrat." Perhaps we would have been, or perhaps not--the numbers in the Gallup poll alone cannot tell us that. At best, they indicate that the public would be willing to accept such a change.

Thanks for the interesting post.

Truman deserved to have low popularity for the bungling of the Korean war -- the invasion of NK and the poor state of the US Army being 2 reasons. His reputation has gained since then, also deservedly, for his other policies -- Marshall Plan, NATO, containment, integration of the Army, etc. -- as the botches in Korea faded from immediate memory.

OTOH, Bush does not have any other policies likely to redeem his memory, and the Middle East botches will have longer term consequences than the Korean botches, simply because the Middle East has oil.

I note, incidentally, that Truman fired Douglas MacArtuhur in April 1951, which did have the consequence of diminishing his already low popularity. In context, of course, this represented a dramatic spurning of advice from the person regarded, rightly or wrongly, as the leading active duty general of his time. In retrospect, there are relatively few people who believe that Truman should have listened to MacArthur and invaded China, but I suspect that someone with less backbone than Truman might have succumbed to the pressure. (I also suspect that there may be some basis for comparison on the attribute of stubbornness between HST and GWB. Sometimes it's good, sometimes not.)

Professor Levinson: Sometimes it's good, sometimes not.

I'm simply not the historian to have much opinion on the substance of this one, but what a breath of fresh air your even-handed approach is. It bears repetition, how valuable an example it sets, and it bears repeated thanks.

My sense was people were tired of leadership by the second person on the ticket, after witnessing how Truman would conduct presidential affairs in his own subsequent standalone election. Although the world had tired of war, we in the US preserved the time honored tradition of idolizing one of the war heroes, Gen. Eisenhower. We would have done better to select someone other than Ike, but somehow by the time his two terms ended he and the nation both had grown out of the war mindset, albeit embracing anew the JMcCarthy xenophobia which somewhat resembles elements which comprise the patchwork of what might be characterized as current antiArab US policy.

I link to a historical article describing the ruinous strategies which MacArthur pursued utilizing perfected armaments in the US arsenal at the time, there.

Truman did not have to nuke actual cities to end the war. But those were different times. He made some funny appointments to the Supreme Court. Kofi Annan had some comments in Truman's birthplace as a farewell address recently leaving office at the UN, reported sensitively there. Yet, even a diplomatic figure such as KA finds it difficult to speak clearly about Truman's merits and ignorances. Now, I have yet to find the surreptitious tome which might be entitled Hoyle on Truman, but might have fun reading it. If his card playing resembled his sense of world policy, it would be a boring read, though.

I think of Truman's defeat but the separation of powers win in the Youngstown case as the quintessence of Truman's headlong approach to governance. He was clearly out of his class, and the Supreme Court notified him so. I might add a rhetorical question, who can point to a president who was judicious in use of war powers.

Annan avoids protracted discussing Truman's pursuit of combat under the color of UN supervision, an odd amalgam which did little for the UN, and, in my opinion, weakened the US congress with respect to its constitutional responsibility to speak directly about continuing hostilities initiated by a president. We have had other wars subsequent to Korea. Congress did not declare war on Laos but dropped bombs on it before the wholesale conflict in Viet Nam. We have AUMF, but we do not have a congress discussing what is a war and making a simple statement to enter it. Instead we have legislative newspeak, and the UN police action in Korea was the beginning of that kind of publicist rhetoric in the US government.
I favor letting a president have the full 4 years; I disfavor parliamentarily weakening the post. Although polls resemble the plebiscite, there is no legal impact on the president's ability to hold the office. Then again, I favor the lifetime tenure rule for the Supreme Court, as well. The modern congress has approached tentatively a few impeachments; the constitution sets the bar high for congress to boot the chief executive from office, as congress has learned.
The timing was a trifle early for the 1948 governor of IL to replace Truman. And the timing now would be disastrous for Cheney to replace Bush. I do not think Cheney could run on his own and be elected, so, congress should not select him to replace Bush based on some perceived less than impeachable flaws in the president. And Truman exited office niftily in time to avoid the gangly selfconscious repressed fifties. His presidential library is set in a nice, friendly, exhilarating town in the midwest; worth a visit. The Bush library doubtless will have information restrictions for many years, like the presidency itself.

Just to give you an idea how messy a rule of confidence can be, I'll tell you something about the current situation in The Netherlands.

As I've explained before we have a rule of confidence. The last administration fell because the House held a vote of no-confidence on the Secretary of Immigration. She lost. The administration took the motion as a dismissal of it's policy and stepped down collectively and ordered new elections. So far so good.

The elections was held and there was a power shift in the House. Therefor a new administration must be formed that can govern while having the confidence of the majority of the house.

The process in which a new administration is formed is called the formation. The formation can take a while because the parties that form the new administration will have to agree on a program in which they can both trust. Compromises must be made etc. During this formation the old administration (the one that stepped down) stays on as a (interim) lame duck administration.

Now we come at the fundamental problem of the parliamentary system: the lame duck administration cannot be dismissed. The rule of confidence can not apply to the lame duck administration because it already has been sacked and is just waiting for the formation of a new administration. Our constitution demands that there has to be an administration at all times. The House can boot a lame duck secretary. This secretary is then replaced by an interim (interim) lame duck secretary.

Therefor it is a rule of unwritten constitutional law that the lame duck administration does not take any measures that (a substantial part of) the new House finds controvesial. The lame duck administration defers these measures to a newly formed administration.

The House asked the lame duck administration to quit the deportation of illegal immigrants. After the election, there was a new majority for some kind of amnesty and the House asked the administration to cease evicting people, while waiting for the new governement.

The lame duck secretary of immigration (her again!) refused to comply with the motion to cease deportations. Subsequently the House held a vote of no confidence on the secretary, which she lost. Then the fun really kicked in, because she refused to step down and her party was threatening to leave the (interim) administration. Normally a vote of no confidence on a secretary can be enforced by threatening to vote no confidence on the administration as a whole. This cannot be and a deadlock followed.

Last night (after twelve hours of internal deliberations by the administration) a constitutionally dubious compromise was proposed: (some) deportations will be ceased, the secretary of immigration does not step down but she will get another assignment (she'll now be responsible for integration not immigration), while the member of another party will become the (intermim) secretary of Immigration. We'll find out today whether the House can live with this sollution.

So you see: a vote of confidence seems so much easier in theory than in practice. The very first problem is what do you do with the current administration after is has been ousted by the House? A rule of confidence is no silver bullet: it only works as long as there is comity and gentlemenship in parliament.

My gut feeling is that a that the partisanship in the US would prevent a proper application of the rule of confidence.

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