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Between the Lines: The Truman Show

Obama takes a page from the 1948 presidential race.

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Congress has a long "To Do" list for the rest of the year, beginning with pumping up the economy. But the calendar of working days on the Republican majority leader's website shows Congress is scheduled to be in session only 52 more days this year.

That allows little time to address the debt ceiling again, extend the payroll tax cuts, prevent student loan interest rates from doubling and decide whether to extend the Bush tax cuts.

The other day, Speaker John Boehner reportedly told a meeting of the House GOP: "This election is going to be all about the economy." The Speaker is right, but the joke may be on him.

President Obama is already blaming lack of action from Boehner's Republican majority in the House of Representatives for the poor economy. And that campaign strategy is just getting started. The question is how much political power accusations of "Republican obstructionism" will have with voters in the final stretch of the campaign.

What is certain is that as the House, Senate and presidential campaigns enter the summer months, every argument from now on will center on what the politically paralyzed Congress has failed to do on economic issues.

Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein speculated that one reason to vote for a Republican president was that it would eliminate all excuses and force the GOP House majority to take action on the economy.The assumption at the heart of what Klein is saying is that congressional Republicans are playing politics while the economy burns.Stephanie Cutter, Obama's campaign spokeswoman, said there are "a million jobs on the table in Congress right now that they could move on."

Mitt Romney and congressional Republicans are quick to point out that the GOP-controlled House has passed some 30 "jobs" bills that have not been acted upon in the Senate.

But those "jobs" bills are loaded with political poison pills for Democrats. They are not serious proposals with potential to be the basis for a deal that could be worked out in conference.

The best political defense of GOP inaction on Capitol Hill comes from Ed Gillespie, senior adviser to Romney's campaign and former chairman of the Republican National Committee. He said Congress is right to do nothing because the Obama White House has created "a hostile environment for job creation in our economy and that's why the only thing that's going to change it are changing the policies, and that means changing the person in the White House."

The Obama campaign team's response to the Gillespie defense is straight out of Harry Truman's political playbook.In the 1948 race, the Democrat ran against a do-nothing, obstructionist Republican Congress and stunned his opponent with an upset win.

The Obama team is already showing signs of going beyond the Truman playbook.

In a charge unprecedented in modern American presidential politics, it is accusing Republicans in Congress, working in coordination with Romney's campaign, of not only "rooting for failure," but of sabotaging the economy for political gain.

A recent poll by ABC/Washington Post asked Americans whom they considered more responsible for the country's current economic problems—President Obama or President Bush.

The Republican president still gets 49 percent of the blame, while the Democrat who succeeded him is held responsible by 34 percent.

And a November, 2011 poll by a bipartisan group found 94 percent of Americans think congressional inaction is hurting the economy. That fits with Congress's dismal job approval ratings.

That is the opening for President Obama to play Harry Truman.

Why is unemployment still so high? A big part of the reason is that public sector jobs are continually being lost at the federal, state and local level. Government payrolls dropped by 13,000 in May. Yet the GOP Congress refuses to invest in public sector spending to steady the fragile economy.

Obama has already cut taxes and reduced the number of public sector jobs since he took office. This is not a matter of opinion. It is an economic fact. But the GOP never acknowledges it and refuses to work on his plan for creating new jobs.

The facts are there for President Obama to stage a revival of the 1948 campaign, when the Democrat incumbent won reelection by attacking a do-nothing Congress. This time the chant will be, "Give 'em hell, Barack!"

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