On the surface, there’s a lot about 2024 that is reminiscent of Harry Truman’s 1948 reelection campaign. The candidate is a plainspoken compromise Democratic Party figure who is his era’s closest thing to an accidental president. Joe Biden is polling poorly, enduring many Democrats’ desire to see him replaced on the ticket, and stymied by Republicans in Congress that he’d like to paint as “do-nothing.” Amid numerous foreign crises, America’s role in the world is being questioned and its alliances tested. And there are third-party candidates who would otherwise be part of the president’s own coalition.

How much optimism should Democrats take from Truman’s victory?

Some of the challenges the two have in common present less of an obstacle to Biden. Truman’s third- (and fourth-) party breakaway opponents were Henry Wallace, Truman’s predecessor as vice president, and Strom Thurmond, the Southern segregationist who won four states in the general election. Biden faces breakaway challenges from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornell West, who may be able to cost the president a state if the stars align, but neither would win any state outright.

But of all the similarities and the differences, none is so important as this: Joe Biden cannot replicate Truman’s famous whistle-stop tour.

Which is to say: What’s stressing Democrats out about all this is that this election is happening to Joe Biden. At best, he’ll be a passive figure in his own political trial.

Yes, he won that way in 2020, to a degree. But that was the first Covid year, when both voters and candidates were discouraged by an atmosphere of stay-inside-ism. Hobbling Trump’s rallygoing was just as important as keeping Biden out of the spotlight, maybe more so. This year, that isn’t going to happen. So the contrast between the two men will only heighten worries over Biden’s fitness.

It thus makes total sense that some left-of-center analysts are saying Biden should either take up an active public schedule lest people conclude that he can’t even if he wanted to. Yet even that, to be honest, shows how much lower the expectations already are.

“During his ‘nonpolitical’ tour in June [1948], Truman covered more than nine thousand miles by train, and beginning with a Labor Day speech in Detroit that ensured widespread union support and funding, he set off again across the country,” writes Philip White in Whistle Stop. “This time he would add more than twenty-two thousand miles—or about three thousand miles short of the earth’s circumference—to his personal odometer, speaking up to sixteen times a day as part of a schedule so frenetic it gave his chief counsel Clark Clifford boils all over his body and nightmares that lasted for months after the campaign ended.”

Sixteen speeches a day on some days. Sure, at the time Truman was 17 years younger than Biden is now. But that only serves as a reminder of Biden’s age.

The White House has a habit of sending Biden’s staffers and Cabinet officials out to reassure the public that Biden is fit as a fiddle. “I wish you could be in a room with him, the way I often am, seeing how he is simultaneously focused, on a big-picture vision, and very focused on details,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN. And of course there was the time Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre responded to a question about Biden’s age with: “I can’t even keep up with him.”

Such comments are usually delivered with a smile while the audience chuckles—as if it’s a demonstration of the president’s sense of humor about his age, rather than a debunking of concerns that he’s slowing way down.

Perhaps the most important output of Truman’s whistle-stop tour were the smiling photos at each stop and the way they shaped the public’s image of Truman. Wide-smiling Harry winking or waving his hat from a train platform became the indelible snapshot of the entire election (until the famous “Dewey defeats Truman” newspaper shot), despite the fact that he was getting ridiculed by the press and pollsters more often than he was getting boosted by them. He reordered the narrative post-facto.

Joe Biden is far from the underdog that Truman was. He’s barely the underdog this year at all, and a few more solid polls could remind the public that it’s difficult to beat an incumbent. But the point is that Biden is not in control of how this plays out. And that’s a nerve-racking place for any campaign to be.

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