Friday, January 5, 2024

This Day in Presidential History (Truman Pledges ‘Fair Deal’ in State of the Union Message)

Jan. 5, 1949—Two months removed from an electrifying “whistle-stop” election victory over Thomas Dewey, Harry Truman urged the passage of legislation that the GOP-dominated Congress had ignored in the last session.

The President termed the laws proposed in his “State of the Union” message as “The Fair Deal”—a phrase meant to evoke for Americans the far-reaching progressive legislation championed by Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt as, respectively, the “Square Deal” and the “New Deal.”

Presidents tend to wax most optimistic in these annual messages to Congress after successful reelection campaigns, and Truman was no exception. He had not only succeeded in his bid to gain a full term in the White House in his own right following FDR’s death, but also now had returning Democratic majorities in the House and Senate that had been lost with the 1946 midterm election.

But the power of those majorities, while representing an improvement over the “Do Nothing Congress” that Truman derided in his campaign, was less than it seemed. 

Memories of the Great Depression that left millions out of work and devastated the economy had receded, leaving conservatives with little reason to agree with the President that “We cannot afford to float along ceaselessly on a postwar boom until it collapses….Instead, government and business must work together constantly to achieve more and more jobs and more and more production.”

Moreover, Southern Democrats had achieved seniority in Congress, giving them the leverage to block the civil-rights legislation the President advocated, such as cloture reform to reduce the number of votes necessary to end filibusters on voting rights and anti-lynching bills.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas could not reconcile the liberal and conservative wings of the party. While Truman could count on the GOP's principal voice on foreign policy, Arthur Vandenberg, to back his renunciation of isolationism, Robert Taft, as chair of the Republican Policy Committee, was far less willing to cooperate on domestic affairs. He was able to maintain a tight hold on the GOP, leaving the Democrats with a majority on paper only.

Just how much leverage Taft could exert was demonstrated in the fate of the President’s housing bill, which only passed by five votes in the House of Representatives—and even then only because Taft had weakened the original proposal and his “yea” vote gave coverage to Republicans wavering on the issue.

Truman did end up winning his requested increase in the minimum wage and broader social security coverage. But the rest of his package went nowhere, with Taft even authoring an article declaring, “The Fair Deal is Creeping Socialism.”

Yet Truman’s proposals established agendas pursued by later Democratic Presidents—notably Lyndon Johnson, with his civil-rights and Medicaid legislation of the mid-1960s.

Incidentally, 36 years later, Gerald Ford recalled, in his own State of the Union message, how, as a freshman Congressman, he had heard Truman report that “The state of the union is good.” 

In contrast now, Ford said, the state of the union was not good, as he cited high unemployment, a recession and inflation, an increased national debt, plant capacity and productivity not rising fast enough, lack of energy independence, and the people questioning “their Government's ability to make hard decisions and stick with them.” 

In the end, Ford’s domestic proposals made about as much headway as Truman’s, and for the same reason: de facto majorities in both houses of Congress that effectively watered them down at least, or balked completely at worst.

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