Editor’s Note: This post was written by Courtney Tomeny.
Past presidents, such as Truman, have set precedent and examples of how to lead the nation. One of Truman’s lessons for Trump is that there are limitations. Though this might be a given, it does serve as an important reminder. Historically, there have been actions taken by presidents that seem to reveal absolute power and in times of crises, presidents have been able to get things done without restriction. President Truman showed that presidents can and will be limited when they are viewed as surpassing their constitutional authority. A prime example of President Truman being restricted is his seizure of the steel mills and the subsequent ruling from the Supreme Court that overturned his authority. To avoid a labor strike in April 1952, President Truman ordered a government seizure of steel companies. After the president’s actions, there was a great public outcry over whether or not this was within his constitutional power. This issue went to the Supreme Court and they overturned Truman’s executive order. President Truman was forced to accept that limitations exist. Seizing the steel mills was “one of the greatest blunders of his presidency,” biographer Robert Dallek claims. This is an important lesson for all presidents. When the president oversteps, Congress and the Supreme Court will be there to check him. President Trump is already starting to see checks on his constitutional authority in terms of his travel bans and Truman’s administration serves a crucial reminder that not even the president has absolute authority.
Another lesson that Truman learned and Trump can learn from is the importance of public opinion. Public opinion can be defined by the actions taken by a president as well as the people that the president surrounds himself with. A significant lesson from President Truman is how to deal with one’s own supporters who do not benefit the office. President Truman’s Attorney General was Howard McGrath who Dallek states had a “reputation as a heavy drinker and a lazy man who left the responsibilities of his various offices to subordinates.” McGrath’s position in the Justice Department reduced its effectiveness and became a source of embarrassment. In order to combat inefficiency, McGrath hired Newbold Morris to task an investigation of the Justice Department. However, when Morris pushed for asset and fund transparency, McGrath was angered and fired him. This whole debacle went public and left the public viewing Truman’s administration as inadequate and feeling as if it “was time for a change in Washington,” according to Dallek. President Truman did ask for the resignation of McGrath but the damage had been done. This serves an important lesson for all presidents. Rewarding loyal supporters with high-ranking positions is quite typical of the American political system. However, it is integral to remember that those officials are reflective of the president and the public will hold the president accountable. Trump has appointed a Cabinet that is viewed as incredibly controversial in today’s political spectrum. He faces low public approval and has had waning approval from his own party with some recent decisions. It is important for the success of his administration and for the public perception of his presidency that he takes responsibility for the people he has appointed. When it appears as if they are losing credibility or competency, he needs to step in and adjust their actions or he might be scrutinized harshly for their decisions.
Information in this post about President Truman was taken from “Harry S. Truman: The American Presidents Series: The 33rd President, 1945-1953” by Robert Dallek.