Obama & Immigration: What Would Truman Do?

Obama & Immigration: What Would Truman Do?

By Lou Cannon - February 5, 2013

President Obama is said to be in a quandary about whether he should take the lead role on immigration reform. Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus wrote that Obama’s challenge on immigration is to stay out of the way of Congress, and that doing so “won’t be as easy as it sounds.”

Obama is less popular on Capitol Hill than he is in the country. Most Republicans don’t like him and even some of the Democrats involved in the current bipartisan push for immigration reform consider him aloof. They aren’t eager to give the president credit. And he shouldn’t care if he gets it.

McManus suggested that Obama should follow the example of Ronald Reagan and broadly make the case for immigration reform to the country while letting Congress do its work with the legislation.

Judging from the president’s comments in a recent interview with The New Republic, this thought seems to have crossed his mind. Obama said he had been “spending a lot of time just thinking about how do I communicate more effectively . . . as opposed to just playing an insider game in Washington.” And indeed, Obama has been on the road this week communicating on immigration reform, gun control and other items on his agenda.

As president, Reagan had a sign on his desk that said, “There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Reagan attributed the saying to Harry Truman, the last Democratic president for whom he voted.

Many Americans, including this writer, shared President Reagan’s belief that Truman had originated the phrase because Truman used it without attribution. We were wrong. The notion that one can accomplish more by standing aside and letting others claim the credit has been around a long time. Charles E. Montague, an English journalist, used a variant as early as 1906, calling it an old saying of anonymous origin.

Authorship aside, the sign on Reagan’s desk perfectly expresses how Truman approached one of the most significant decisions of his presidency.

In 1947, Europe was devastated from World War II and suffering from two of the worst winters of the century. People were starving. The Soviet Union had taken over most of Eastern Europe, and communist parties were thriving in France and Italy.

Truman realized that economic aid to Europe was imperative but also knew it would be a hard sell in Congress. Most Americans were tired of foreign involvement -- and tired, too, of the Democratic Party that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had eloquently led for a dozen years until his death in 1945.

In the 1946 midterm elections, under the slogan “time for a change,” Republicans won both houses of Congress.

Truman pushed ahead nonetheless with an ambitious idea he called the European Recovery Plan. His aide Clark Clifford saw how momentous this proposal could become and suggested to his boss that the president call it the Truman Plan.

In his book “Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower and a Dangerous World,” the late William Lee Miller describes Truman’s reaction. He “smiled wryly” (as Clifford recalled it) and said: “We have a Republican majority in both houses. Anything going up there with my name will quiver a couple of times, turn belly up and die.”

A few days later Truman told Clifford that he had decided to name the plan after Gen. George Marshall, the brilliant U.S. military chief of staff during World War II. Even “the worst Republican” would vote for the bill if were named after Marshall, Truman said.

As it turned out, even with Marshall’s name on it, passage of the bill was far from assured. Republicans in the 80th Congress resisted what some of them called “global New Dealism.”

Truman in response named a bipartisan commission to push the legislation; it was chaired by the Republican statesman Henry Stimson, who had been secretary of war under FDR. Stimson won over some Republicans, and Stalin won over still more with a brutal coup in February 1948 in which the Soviet Union took control of Czechoslovakia. Still, passage of the bill was touch-and-go. Truman stayed mostly on the sidelines and left the heavy lifting in Congress to the prominent (and onetime isolationist) Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. In April, the European Recovery Plan passed with bipartisan majorities in both house.

The ERP spent $13 billion in four years -- $120 billion in today’s dollars -- to lift Europe to its feet. It saved many thousands of people from starvation and may also have prevented Western Europe from going communist. The ERP was known then and is remembered by history as the Marshall Plan. It is a resonant achievement of a president who wanted to get things done and didn’t care who received the credit. 

Lou Cannon, who is traveling in Scotland, has written about the campaign for RealClearPolitics.

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