How Obama Can Exploit a Do-Nothing Congress

Harry Truman called Congress back to Washington for a special session. Barack Obama should also.
These guys were easier to deal with than Congress.

President Barack Obama has been channeling President Harry Truman again, attacking a "do-nothing Congress" for dereliction of duty. Obama is right that this is the least productive Congress since World War II, but rhetoric alone may not be enough to persuade voters to make a change.

In 1948, Truman didn't just attack Congress. He publicly shamed it, calling both houses back into special session that summer. When Congress still failed to pass any major legislation, Truman's "do-nothing" attack stuck and helped him pull out a huge come-from-behind victory in the fall while also helping Democrats recapture control of Congress.

No president since Truman has called Congress back for a special session. Were Obama to do so now, the move would explicitly link Barry to Harry and Republicans to one of the most stunning defeats in their party's history.

True, 2014 is not 1948: Obama is not up for re-election, as Truman was. Republicans only control one house of Congress, not both, making it harder to blame one party. Congress has adjourned only until September, not December. And the media landscape is more fractured and partisan than it once was, making it more difficult for the president to define his opponents and control his message.

Yet the political climate is not so different today. The president has a low approval rating (Truman 39 percent, Obama 42 percent). Most experts are predicting a good year for Republicans. And Republicans have failed to produce legislation on several high-profile issues that enjoy popular support.

"I recommended an increase in the minimum wage. What did I get? Nothing. Absolutely nothing." That was "Give 'em hell Harry" in his speech announcing the special session. Obama is in the same boat and could say much the same thing. In fact, to heighten the drama, he could give an Oval Office address -- it would be only the third of his presidency -- to announce that he is canceling his two-week vacation to Martha's Vineyard and calling Congress back into session in August to raise the minimum wage and reform the immigration system, his two biggest legislative priorities this year.

Polls show that Americans -- including Republicans -- strongly favor action on both issues, although not necessarily the specific steps proposed by the president. If Obama can offer to meet Republicans halfway, and Republicans refuse to compromise, it would help his party in two important ways.

First, it would provide a boost to Democratic candidates who have made increasing the minimum wage a crucial issue, including embattled Democratic senators from tossup states such as Louisiana, Alaska, Colorado, Michigan and North Carolina. Second, it would help energize Hispanic voters, who strongly favor a minimum wage increase and increasingly disapprove of Obama's handling of the humanitarian crisis at the Mexican border. If Congress does not address that crisis in coming days, the justification for a special session grows even stronger.

If Democrats get drubbed in November, the loss will be seen as a repudiation of the president whether or not he calls a special session. But if he highlights congressional intransigence and Democrats do better than expected at the polls, credit will redound to him. More important, if election postmortems conclude that the minimum wage and immigration helped Democrats exceed expectations, Republicans may be more willing to compromise on those issues in the next Congress.

In calling a special session, Truman said: "My duty as president requires that I use every means within my power to get the laws the people need on matters of such importance and urgency."

Harry gave 'em hell -- and dragged them back to Washington. Barry should be as bold.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Frank Barry at

    To contact the editors on this story:
    Frank Barry at
    Frank Wilkinson at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.