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Sept. 24, 2022

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Leubsdorf: History repeats with Biden

But will he follow in footsteps of President Truman or Carter?

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To many supporters, Joe Biden is a modern-day Harry Truman, the unexpected president initially overwhelmed by an array of unanticipated problems whose resilience resulted in a historic victory and an honored place in presidential history.

To many critics, he is the return of Jimmy Carter, another unexpected president who lost the White House after one term because of his inability to cope with unanticipated overseas turmoil that resulted in raging inflation.

Indeed, our current chief executive has shown attributes of both.

His efforts to mobilize allied support for Ukraine against its invasion by Russia may one day be seen as a modern-day equivalent of the way Truman created the post-World War II Western alliance with such historic steps as the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

But his difficulty in coping with inflation, partly stemming from the size of his own COVID relief legislation and partly from the impact of the Ukraine war, recalls Carter’s struggles with inflation and the 1979 oil shortage after the Islamic ouster of Iran’s shah. Like Carter, Biden faces the possibility of a politically dangerous recession from the Federal Reserve’s efforts to curb inflation.

Each of the three struggled with a presidential requirement that only arose with the onset in the 20th century of mass media: being the chief public communicator of national policies.

An often flat and uninspiring speaker, Truman suffered by comparison with the predecessor who was the presidency’s first modern communicator, Franklin D. Roosevelt. But at crucial times, he conveyed a sense of belief and determination, most notably in the famed whistle-stop speeches that energized his 1948 campaign.

The Georgia-born Carter’s Southern accent was a handicap in some parts of the country, and he sometimes suffered from his tangled verbal constructions. Like Biden, he was far more effective in small groups than on the platforms that presidents must master.

Biden, once considered something of an orator, suffers from a tendency to misspeak that may stem from his childhood stutter and from the lack of energy in many of his speeches. Along with the fact that he looks his age (79), he conveys the perception that he is less in command than he is.

Truman sought to overcome his political problems with fighting words and a fervent belief in his rectitude. Because he served before the television era, the tone of his remarks was more important than his uninspiring appearance.

Lately, Biden has embraced a more aggressive tone that some have called Truman-like.

Carter preferred the town meeting format to formal speeches, and his detailed knowledge made him good at it. But he suffered from a problem that has also bedeviled Biden, making news unnecessarily by saying things out loud that required aides to walk back or explain his comments.

Like most recent presidents, Biden is knowledgeable on both national and international issues. While his advisers seem to fear that his occasional misstatements offset that, every president sometimes misspeaks. Often, after a news conference by President Ronald Reagan, his press secretary had to go to the White House briefing room to explain what he really meant.

Reagan’s job approval rating, like Biden’s, went down during much of his first three years as president, more from an economic recession than from his occasional misstatements. When economic conditions improved, so did his job approval.

In Truman’s first midterm election as president, his Democrats suffered massive House and Senate defeats in 1946, losing majorities they had held since the early 1930s. But in 1948, he was elected. While his energetic campaigning was crucial, it was still a Democratic era.

Biden, by contrast, serves in a highly partisan era in which the parties are closely divided. Though Democrats won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, the Electoral College produced five Democratic and three Republican victories. Three elections were very close.

Though Biden plans extensive fall campaigning, he’s unlikely to match Truman’s whistle-stop energy. Though more politically skilled than Carter, his seeming lack of energy threatens a political fate like the Georgian’s loss to Reagan.

On the other hand, Biden may be able to count on this: Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan.

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