According to a recent New York Times article, President Barack Obama and his aides believe he can win re-election mostly by mixing "the combativeness of Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1936 drive" with the "anti-Congress zeal of Harry S. Truman's 1948 campaign."
Mr. Obama will find it easier to invoke these past presidents than to replicate their electoral successes. In many ways, his situation is significantly different than that of his Democratic predecessors.
For one thing, a year out from the 1948 election, Gallup measured Mr. Truman's job approval at 54%, whereas Mr. Obama's is 43%—substantially lower than any president who has won re-election. (Gallup wasn't yet polling job approval in 1935, the year before FDR's landslide re-election win, but it's reasonable to assume he was far more popular than Mr. Obama is at the same point in his presidency.)
For another, Mr. Obama lacks the record on jobs of either Mr. Truman or Mr. Roosevelt. Unemployment was at 7.8% when Mr. Obama took office. It's 9% today and is forecast to remain there through 2012. For FDR, unemployment was 17% in 1936—very high, but down from 20% the year before and 25% at its peak in 1933. In 1948, unemployment was 3.7% when Truman won.
Mr. Obama's record on economic growth also trails that of his two Democratic predecessors. The Congressional Budget Office, the Federal Reserve, and the Office of Management and Budget all suggest growth next year will be lucky to be a smidgen over 2.5%. By contrast, the gross domestic product grew (in current dollars) by more than 10% in 1948. And under Roosevelt, GDP grew (again in current dollars) by over 14% in 1936.
Another issue is talent as a campaigner. Truman, a plainspoken Missourian, could connect with working-class voters in a way Mr. Obama never has and never will. And FDR's "combativeness" was effective in part because he had restored confidence to a Depression-ravaged America.
At the 1936 Democratic Party convention, FDR combatively excoriated "the privileged princes" of a new "economic tyranny." But his Chicago speech addressed a nation far different than the affluent, multi-car, appliance-packed households of today. It's an open question whether Mr. Obama's class warfare will pack the same punch, even given our economic hard times.
There are other dissimilarities. Truman denounced a "do-nothing Congress" both of whose chambers were controlled by Republicans. But the Senate today is Democratic—and "do-nothing" is a label that is better affixed to it than to the Republican-controlled House.
In 1948, Republican congressional leaders preached inactivity, counting on New York Gov. Tom Dewey replacing Truman. But today under House Speaker John Boehner, the GOP has pursued an active agenda, including passing 29 bills aimed at spurring economic growth, 21 of which are now stalled in the Senate.
The House Republicans are tracking their legislative progress for all to see at majorityleader.gov/JobsTracker. That's evidence they plan to aggressively market their efforts to voters. For its part, the Senate hasn't even been able to approve a budget using the normal congressional procedures—committee hearings and markups, amendments, floor debates and the like—in nearly three years.
While there are some turkeys remaining in the GOP field, it is also unlikely that Mr. Obama will face a sacrificial lamb like Kansas Gov. Alf Landon in 1936 or a Republican as overconfident as Dewey was in 1948. Dewey's strategy, he told aides, was "when you're leading, don't talk." There's every sign this year's GOP contenders all understand they won't win the general election simply by showing up, that Americans will (rightly) demand a substantive, positive agenda as the price of admission to the Oval Office.
History can provide presidential campaign planners with valuable lessons. But no two situations are the same—and in this instance, what's most striking about Mr. Obama's circumstances compared to those of Truman and Roosevelt is how different they really are.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, November 30, 2011.