Biden’s basement, Trump’s taunts and the power of presidential action

President Harry S Truman speaks from his train during a 1948 "Whistle Stop" campaign event.

Donald Trump’s election tropes make for great laugh lines at rallies and even sound bites for the evening news, but as he showed in 2016, they also can be effective lines of attack, and repeated often enough, become embedded in not only media narratives but in ways the public – or at least his supporters – frame the campaign.

One of his most prominent in 2020 – of Democratic challenger Joe Biden being hidden away in his basement – may be more powerful than even he knows.

It’s no secret that Biden’s relative inactivity is a subject of consternation even among some of his own advisors.

And it suffers by comparison with Trump’s sometimes superhuman energy – rallies in multiple cities, images of him in presidential roles, brokering a Middle East peace agreement, traveling to Milwaukee to talk “law and order,” landing in California to discuss wildfires.

Biden’s intentional low-key campaign is designed for contrast – a calm, level-headed challenger promising normalcy as an antidote to the Trump tempest.

But is that a good play? If the polls are to be believed, it has been to this point.

But a distant campaign example suggests that Biden shouldn’t sit back forever.

If you think Trump’s approval ratings are bad – and no modern president has won reelection with lower numbers – take a good look at Harry Truman’s approval ratings as he embarked on the 1948 campaign. Trump’s job approval (measured by Gallup) in August of 2020 was 42%. Truman’s final approval rating before the ’48 election was 36%.

In the polls, Truman trailed his challenger, Republican Thomas Dewey, by as many as 17 points in September, 1948. His own party was fractured three ways, with Strom Thurmond launching a third-party Dixiecrat bid, and Henry Wallace breaking away to run as a Progressive Party candidate. Most, even those closest to him, thought Truman’s deficit was insurmountable.

But Truman was a whirlwind of activity. He took the fight to Dewey and congressional Republicans. He attacked them by name. He embarked on a “whistle stop” campaign, crossing the country, making speeches from the rear of the presidential train. He blistered his opposition, made jokes, signed autographs, and shook hands with voters. It was during these trips that the phrase “Give ‘Em Hell Harry!” became popular. He put on a show.

It took inexhaustible energy. On Sept. 5, 1948, the “Truman Special” left Union Station in Washington D.C. Truman planned two transcontinental tours of 10 days each. The first would take him 32,000 miles and involve 250 speeches. He worked 18-hour days. He was quotable all the way. His crowds started to grow: 250,000 in Boston and Detroit, 50,000 in Indianapolis and Denver.

His talks were wild and sometimes irresponsible. He called Dewey a fascist and compared him to Hitler. Dewey, of course, was neither.

By contrast, Dewey played it safe. He said nothing controversial. He laid low and hoped to protect his double-digit lead. Far better financed, he traveled by train and used a state-of-the-art sound system. He had far more press – nearly 100 reporters — traveling with him on his, “Victory Special,” along with a sophisticated advance team. But when he spoke, Dewey said nothing. He spoke in platitudes, of an administration with “faith in the American people” but little else.

The weekend before the election, Life magazine carried a story on Dewey with a headline calling him “the next president.”

Truman was gaining in the polls, but it looked like too little, too late. In the final weeks before the election, each candidate produced a campaign video for use in newsreels in the nation’s theaters. Dewey’s was slick and well produced, but depicted a calm, even passive, candidate waiting for and expecting victory.

Truman’s was thrown together on the fly, but consisted of images of the president doing presidential things, leading the country in wartime, speaking to the United Nations, attending international conferences, signing bills, speaking with foreign leaders.

Of course, you know Truman defeated Dewey in one of the great come-from-behind upsets in American presidential history.

And, if you read closely, you noted some parallels.

Now, Biden is a far better candidate than Dewey was, even from his own basement. And the time of pandemic creates a factor that didn’t exist in the 1940s.

But the Democrat must be careful not to underestimate the power of images, of a president in action, or a challenger laying back. It could be a recipe for losing a lead – and an election.