President Truman and his wife, Bess, during his 1948 whistle-stop campaign.Credit…Associated Press
In the era of modern consumer confidence data, there has never been an economy quite like this recent one — with prices rising so high and unemployment staying so low.
But just a few years before the consumer sentiment survey index became widely available in 1952, there was a period of economic unrest that bears a striking resemblance to today: the aftermath of World War II, when Americans were near great prosperity yet found themselves frustrated by the economy and their president.
If there’s a time that might make sense of today’s political moment, postwar America might just be it. Many analysts today have been perplexed by public dissatisfaction with the economy, as unemployment and gross domestic product have remained strong and as inflation has slowed significantly after a steep rise. To some, public opinion and economic reality are so discordant that it requires a noneconomic explanation, sometimes called “vibes,” like the effect of social media or a pandemic hangover on the national mood.
But in the era of modern economic data, Harry Truman was the only president besides Joe Biden to oversee an economy with inflation over 7 percent while unemployment stayed under 4 percent and G.D.P. growth kept climbing. Voters weren’t overjoyed then, either. Instead, they saw Mr. Truman as incompetent, feared another depression and doubted their economic future, even though they were at the dawn of postwar economic prosperity.
The source of postwar inflation was fundamentally similar to post-pandemic inflation. The end of wartime rationing unleashed years of pent-up consumer demand in an economy that hadn’t fully transitioned back to producing butter instead of guns. A year after the war, wartime price controls ended and inflation skyrocketed. A great housing crisis gripped the nation’s cities as millions of troops returned from overseas after 15 years of limited housing construction. Labor unrest roiled the nation and exacerbated production shortages. The most severe inflation of the last 100 years wasn’t in the 1970s, but in 1947, reaching around 20 percent.
According to the historian James T. Patterson, “no domestic issue of these years did Truman more damage than the highly contentious question of what to do about wartime restraints on prices.”
Mr. Truman’s popularity collapsed. By spring in 1948, an election year, his approval rating had fallen to 36 percent, down from over 90 percent at the end of World War II. He fell behind the Republican Thomas Dewey in the early head-to-head polling. He was seen as in over his head. The New Republic ran a front-page editorial titled: “As a candidate for president, Harry Truman should quit.”
In retrospect, it’s hard to believe voters were so frustrated. Historians generally now consider Mr. Truman one of the great presidents, and the postwar period was the beginning of the greatest economic boom in American history. By any conceivable measure, Americans were unimaginably better off than during the Great Depression a decade earlier. Unemployment remained low by any standard, and consumers kept spending. The sales of seemingly every item — appliances, cars and so on — were an order of magnitude higher than before the war.
Yet Americans were plainly dissatisfied. Incomes in 1948 were twice what they were in 1941, but statistically their dissatisfaction is probably best explained by the decline in real incomes in 1947, just as real incomes declined in 2021-22. The polling in the run-up to the 1948 election — archived at the Roper Center — bears the hallmarks of voter dissatisfaction:
Despite the extraordinarily positive developments of the last decade, voters were pessimistic about the future. They believed a depression was likely in the next few years. As late as summer 1948, they were likelier to think things in America would get worse in the years ahead than to get better. They expected prices to keep rising.
In November 1947, Gallup found that more than two-thirds of Americans said they were finding it harder to make ends meet than the year before, while almost no one said it was easier.
In polling throughout 1947 and 1948, a majority supported reinstating wartime rationing and price controls.
In December 1947, more than 70 percent of adults said they would want their own wages to decline in order to bring prices down.
Prices seemed to weigh heavily on Americans heading into the election. Voters said that if they got a chance to talk with Mr. Truman about anything, it would be the cost of living and getting the economy back to normal. Ahead of the conventions, voters said a plan to address high prices was the No. 1 priority they wanted in a party platform. More voters said they wanted prices to be addressed over the next four years than any other issue.
The importance of the economic issue faced stiff competition from the rising Cold War, the enactment of the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift, the formation of Israel and the subsequent First Arab-Israeli War, Mr. Truman’s decision to desegregate the military and the rise of the Dixiecrats.
The Cold War, civil rights, Israel and other domestic issues combined to put extraordinary political pressure on an increasingly fractured Democratic coalition. On the left, the former vice president Henry Wallace ran against Mr. Truman as a Progressive; he also ran as someone who was unequivocally pro-Israel, threatening to deny Mr. Truman the support of Jewish voters who had voted all but unanimously for Franklin D. Roosevelt. On the right, the segregationist South defected from the Democrats at the convention over the party’s civil rights plank, again threatening to deny him the support of an overwhelmingly Democratic voting bloc.
In the end, Mr. Truman won in perhaps the most celebrated comeback in American electoral history, including the iconic “Dewey Beats Truman” headline and photograph. He had barnstormed the country with an economically populist campaign that argued Democrats were on the side of working people while reminding voters of the Great Depression. You might well remember from your U.S. history classes that he blamed the famous “Do Nothing Congress” for not enacting his agenda.
What you might not have learned in history class is that Mr. Truman attacked the “Do Nothing Congress“ first and foremost for failing to do anything about prices. The text of his speech at the Democratic convention does not quite do justice to his impassioned attack on Republicans for failing to extend price controls in 1946, and for their platform on prices. Finally, he called for a special session of Congress to act on prices and housing shortages (the links correspond to the YouTube video of those parts of his convention speech, for those interested). In short, congressional failure to act on prices was central to his critique of Republicans.
In this respect, Mr. Truman was probably in a stronger position than Mr. Biden. Mr. Truman could blame Republicans for inflation; he could argue he had a solution for inflation; and he could link his position on inflation to his broader message about the Democrats as a party for working people. Polling at the time suggested that voters supported price controls, supported his special session, and did not necessarily blame Mr. Truman for inflation. In fact, more voters blamed Congress, business and labor than the president himself.
Where Mr. Biden can still hope to match Mr. Truman is in economic reality, as inflation today is falling just as it was in the run-up to the 1948 election.
In January 1948, inflation was 10 percent; by the end of October, it had fallen by half, and would reach one percent by January 1949. At election time, only 18 percent of voters expected prices would be higher in six months; just a few months earlier in June, a majority did so. It seems reasonable to wonder whether Mr. Truman might have lost the election had it been held a few months earlier.
Despite those excellent conditions for a comeback, Mr. Truman’s electoral weakness was still stark. He had a powerful message and an improving economy, but he won by just 4.5 percentage points. The third-party candidates Mr. Wallace and Strom Thurmond succeeded in denying Mr. Truman key elements of the Democratic base that the party might have imagined it could take for granted just a few years earlier. He lost much of the Deep South without the support of the Dixiecrats and even lost New York, thanks to considerable defections on the left and among Jewish voters. No Democratic presidential would ever again reassemble the so-called New Deal coalition.
But if 1948 is a mixed precedent for Mr. Biden, it’s a good precedent for today’s sour economic mood. It might betray a simple fact about public opinion: Voters hate inflation so much that they won’t ever like the economy if prices go up. There is no precedent in the era of consumer sentiment data for voters to have an above-average view of the economy once inflation cracks 5 percent — the recent high was 9 percent in June 2022 — even when unemployment is extremely low. It may just be that simple; indeed, consumer sentiment has begun to tick up over the last year, as inflation has declined to 3 percent.
Alternately, 1948 and this era may suggest a more complex lesson about public opinion in the wake of pandemic or war, as high postwar and post-pandemic expectations quickly get dashed by the reality that the world isn’t returning to “normal” quite so quickly. Not only are high hopes dashed, but they also yield many kinds of economic dysfunction beyond high prices, from supply chain problems and housing shortages to “help wanted” signs and rising interest rates.
Indeed, the famous “return to normalcy” election in 1920 — the largest popular vote landslide in American history — followed World War I and the 1918-1920 flu pandemic, which brought a recession and even higher inflation than in the 1940s.
Normalcy did not come fast enough to save the party in power in 1920, the Democrats, but in retrospect it wasn’t too far off. The Roaring Twenties were just around the corner. And normalcy was just beginning to arrive in 1948, when Mr. Truman won re-election. The country was at the dawn of the prosperous, idealized 1950s “Leave It to Beaver” era that still lingers in the public imagination.
If something similar is almost at hand, it can’t come soon enough for Mr. Biden.