Ross Douthat employs a strange anachronism in his recent column on Obama’s foreign policy:
If Hagel does get through, it will be the clearest sign yet that Obama enjoys more trust — and with it, more latitude — on foreign policy than any Democrat since Harry Truman [bold mine-DL].
I call this an anachronism for a few reasons. It was Truman’s foreign policy mistakes, both perceived and real, that helped the Republicans to end their two decades out of power and made the Republicans a credible alternative for governing for the first time since the 1920s. Truman’s expansion of containment doctrine into a policy to be pursued globally had long-lasting, pernicious effects on U.S. foreign policy that would last until the end of the Cold War. Truman left office with approval ratings worse than the lowest ratings of George W. Bush, and rightly so. It was only much later that Truman’s reputation was rehabilitated. The later rehabilitation of Truman after what most contemporaries regarded as his disastrous tenure has given endless encouragement to Bush’s remaining boosters, since they imagine that historians later in the century will engage in enough revisionism to make people nostalgic for the calamitous Bush era.
The point here is that Truman’s last years in office didn’t include his being widely trusted on foreign policy, but rather just the opposite. One of the main reasons that he didn’t seek re-election was that he couldn’t even command enough of the support of his party’s members to be re-nominated. Few Americans trusted him on foreign policy or anything else by the end of his term, which is so far very much not the case with Obama. Indeed, to the extent that Obama has earned the public’s trust (rather than benefiting from not being Bush), it has been by conducting a relatively less Truman-like foreign policy than his predecessor. Beinart’s Truman/Eisenhower distinction here is a bit exaggerated, but it hints at the reason why Obama had a foreign policy advantage during the election and why so many realists have moved into his camp.