Not a Fair Deal
Not a Fair Deal
Date: January 1, 1952
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Although President Franklin Roosevelt's health had been declining, many Americans were stunned when the wartime leader died in 1945. Perhaps most surprised was the nation's vice president, Harry S. Truman (1884–1972). Chosen to replace Roosevelt's previous second-in-command, Henry A. Wallace, Truman had been in office barely three months when he was suddenly thrust into the Oval Office. The following day, Truman candidly likened the news of Roosevelt's death to having the moon, stars, and planets dropped on his head.
President Truman inherited an America quite different from the country led by his predecessor. Whereas President Roosevelt had enjoyed strong support as a wartime leader, Truman found both the U.S. Congress and the nation far less malleable. Where Roosevelt had enjoyed broad wartime powers, Truman found himself fighting for approval of his initiatives. In particular, the experiences of the Depression and the trauma of World War II had led to significant shifts in U.S. political thought, and it was now far more conservative than it had previously been. Roosevelt's massive expansion of government programs, while instrumental in restarting the U.S. economy, had also raised the ire of conservatives who opposed expansions of government power.
This resistance to government expansion produced an unlikely alliance in Congress. Southern Democrats, generally more conservative than their northern counterparts and against Democratic initiatives to expand rights for blacks, found themselves uniting with Congressional Republicans to limit Truman's initiatives. Facing this implausible coalition, Truman quickly found himself stymied in most of his major efforts.
Following in the footsteps of the popular Roosevelt, Truman presented the nation with a new set of programs designed to expand the New Deal. In the spirit of Roosevelt's reforms, Truman advocated raising the minimum wage, broadening Social Security coverage, launching housing initiatives, and creating national health insurance. Truman's efforts were largely unsuccessful, and Congress rejected every major element of his plan. Making matters worse, liberal Democrats also attacked Truman as being untrue to the spirit of FDR. With Truman's popularity at an all-time low, the Republicans managed to gain control of Congress for the first time since the 1920s.
NOT A FAIR DEAL
Seeprimary source image.
With his own party divided, Congress in the hands of his adversaries, and his legislative initiatives in shambles, Truman appeared dead in the water. As the election of 1948 approached, the Democratic Party splintered further, with two separate groups breaking off to nominate their own candidates. Although Truman's defeat appeared a foregone conclusion, he refused to give up, launching a 200-stop nationwide tour during which he rallied support and criticized Congress for doing nothing to improve the country. Despite his efforts, most reputable newspapers predicted Truman would lose by as much as fifteen percent. To the shock of most pundits, Truman led the election from start to finish, defeating Republican Thomas Dewey by 4.4 percent. Following the victory, a jovial Truman held aloft a copy of the Chicago Tribune, whose premature headline proclaimed Dewey the winner.
Energized by his surprise victory, Truman sought to harness this momentum to launch new social initiatives. Calling his efforts the Fair Deal, he proposed six major initiatives, including expanded civil rights laws, federal funding for housing and education, unemployment insurance, tax cuts for the poor, and a national health care system. While these proposals sat well with liberal Democrats and were true to the spirit of Roosevelt's New Deal, the mood of the country and of Congress had shifted decisively to the right. With the exception of a housing initiative passed in 1949, Truman's Fair Deal went nowhere, stymied by the new conservative coalition in Congress.
Like many other wartime leaders, Truman found himself struggling to govern in peacetime. The economic transition from war to peace was difficult for America; pent-up demand for consumer goods and a slow transition from wartime to peacetime factory production led to rapid inflation and numerous shortages. The nation also struggled to absorb the influx of war veterans, and labor unrest led to numerous strikes, further disrupting the already strained economy. The failure of Truman's Fair Deal marked the beginning of a slow decline for liberal policies in the United States. In the next presidential election, Republican Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) won the first of his two terms as the nation sought reassurance in the face of the Cold War.
The unusual coalition of northern Republicans and southern Democrats that blocked Truman's expansion of U.S. government reemerged in the 1980s following the election of Ronald Reagan (1911–2004). With Congress securely in the hands of Democrats, Reagan's conservative agenda faced an uphill battle. But Reagan's program of tax cuts and increased military spending passed Congress due to the support of conservative southern Democrats known as Boll Weevil Democrats. As many as sixty fiscally and socially conservative Democrats joined Reagan's Republicans to pass the major initiatives of the president's plan.
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