Look to 1948

The handwringing about early polls showing that Americans may give Donald Trump a second chance because they are underwhelmed by the outcome of Joe Biden’s first term has a parallel in the mid 20th century. Nate Cohn reflects in his NYTimes newsletter on the similarities between perceptions of Joe Biden and Harry S. Truman at the ends of their respective first terms in the White House. Like Biden, Truman was dealing with low unemployment and high inflation, and Americans were not enthusiastic about their president.

The source of postwar inflation was fundamentally similar to post-pandemic inflation. The end of wartime rationing unleashed years of pent-up consumer demand in an economy that hadn’t fully transitioned back to producing butter instead of guns. A year after the war, wartime price controls ended and inflation skyrocketed. A great housing crisis gripped the nation’s cities as millions of troops returned from overseas after 15 years of limited housing construction. Labor unrest roiled the nation and exacerbated production shortages. The most severe inflation of the last 100 years wasn’t in the 1970s, but in 1947, reaching around 20 percent.

Mr. Truman’s popularity collapsed. By spring in 1948, an election year, his approval rating had fallen to 36 percent, down from over 90 percent at the end of World War II. He fell behind the Republican Thomas Dewey in the early head-to-head polling. He was seen as in over his head. The New Republic ran a front-page editorial titled: “As a candidate for president, Harry Truman should quit.”

Democrats calling on Biden to quit would do well to read all of Cohn’s article. And, of course, Truman went on to beat Thomas Dewey, though famously, not as everyone expected.

Posted 4 January 2024 by Mark ·