And he was dealing with a stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Trump’s economy is humming.
The story of the 2018 midterms is not yet fully written, but if an expected blue wave ends up sweeping Democrats into the majority, there’s at least one reason Trump should not despair:
Most Presidents who lose one or both houses in their first midterms go on to re-election.
“If Democrats should take back one or both houses, he could go all Harry Truman on them,” said Barbara Perry, who is director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
Trump could be a master at vilifying Democrats, particularly if they take a sweeping election victory and overplay their hand, she said, using the example of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, in the 1990s.
Those are both Democrats, and Trump’s obviously a Republican. But the point is that what happens in one midterm election certainly doesn’t presage the next general election.
Each election — quite obviously — is unique.
When Obama’s Democrats lost their majority in 2010, it was after a string of legislative accomplishments, including a massive stimulus to kick-start the economy out of the Great Recession, a Wall Street overhaul bill and the Affordable Care Act.
It was a tea party movement born of backlash to those policies — and others that Democrats had hoped to pass, such as a cap-and-trade proposal to deal with climate change and the promise of immigration revisions — that swept Democrats out of power.
Republicans have much slimmer majorities now than Democrats did then. Even with all levers of government under their control under Trump, they’ve been unable to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They did pass landmark tax legislation, but the additional money many Americans will have in their pockets has not led to a broad backlash against it.
Rather, Democrats today are more likely to vote on a visceral reaction to Trump or to protect some of those accomplishments Democrats achieved in the first two productive years of the Obama administration. Health care, notably, has played a huge role in Democrats’ 2018 platform.
Interestingly, Bill Clinton’s Democrats lost their majority after an equally active two years. They passed a crime bill, which has not aged and for which there is an ongoing bipartisan effort to undo aspects of. It was in that two years that the country also entered NAFTA. Trump is on the verge of a renegotiating that controversial but pivotal trade deal.
Republicans refused, for the most part, to work with Obama after taking then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s gavel. It took the GOP until 2014 to take the Senate. It was a different story for Clinton, who despite his impeachment did work with Republican majorities, triangulating legislation.
Before that, Democrats had maintained majorities in both chambers through a slew of presidents from both parties back to the 1950s.
Truman came into office with solid approval, but he simply was not FDR and as voters got to know him, his ratings dropped, according to Perry. Plus, after World War II, soldiers were coming home expecting jobs and housing, but both were lacking, Perry said.
Democrats also lost the House and Senate for two years after Truman took over, but despite the famous wrong newspaper headline declaring otherwise, Republican Thomas Dewey did not defeat Truman.
“He goes out on the stump in 1948 and becomes ‘give ’em hell Harry,’ ” Perry said. “This is one key to how to come back from a shellacking is to turn against that Congress from the other party.”
Before Truman, during the Depression, is another long stretch of Democrats in control on Capitol Hill, with FDR in the White House. All the way back to Hoover, who as we’ve mentioned had serious problems. Republicans lost the House during his midterm and then the White House and the Senate two years later. But as Perry points out, the economy was in a free fall and a quarter of the country was out of work. Hoover’s politics were out of step with that time.
“In the case of Hoover his ideology simply was totally out of step with what the country needed at that time,” she said.
Woodrow Wilson lost Democratic majorities, but only in his second term. And that came just days before the end of World War I and during his attempt to create the League of Nations.
At this point we’re so far from modern politics — before the automobile and airplanes, much less the internet — as to make these comparisons completely academic and not very helpful.
CNN’s Travis Caldwell contributed to this report.