Truman ran against the "do-nothing" 80th Congress, reckoning that it was far less popular than GOP presidential candidate Thomas Dewey. In his famous acceptance speech, Truman spent much of his time lambasting the Republicans in Congress and did not even utter Dewey's name.
Clinton took a different approach, attacking Republican nominee Bob Dole by linking him to the much-disliked GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich. At the same time, however, he "triangulated" by separating himself from Democrats in Congress over issues such as welfare reform.
Some say that the path to victory lies in the Truman strategy, while others point to the Clinton path. But both are flawed models for 2012.
First of all, whereas both chambers had GOP majorities in 1948 and 1996, only the House is in Republican hands now. Democratic control of the Senate greatly complicates any effort to run against Congress.
Second, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are more adept at national politics than their counterparts in the earlier elections. Their poll numbers are currently unfavorable, but neither is prone to gaffes.
Third and most important, the economy is in a slump, and will probably stay there through 2012. The White House itself projects that high unemployment will persist. In 1948 and 1996, by contrast, growth was strong in the months before the election. One could argue that the economy had much more to do with the victories of Truman and Clinton than their campaigns did.
So what can President Obama do? After talking to top Democrats inside the White House and Congress, Reporter Howard Fineman has the answer:
"It's not going to be a 'Morning in America' campaign, it's going to be a darkness at midnight campaign about the Republicans. It's going to be about the fact that the Republicans in Congress pushed Paul Ryan's bill Medicare, about how they pushed Cut, Cap and Balance. It's about how Republicans wanted to dismantle Wall Street reform. It's going to be about how the Republican presidential candidates have embraced the Tea Party."
"Those are going to be the two central messages of a campaign that's mostly going to be about attack. I think this is -- just like 2008 was in some respects an uplifting campaign, from both sides, this one is going to be down and dirty from the beginning from both sides."
In that sense, the election will be like that of 1800, which supporters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson filled the papers with scurrilous verbal assaults.See some mock TV ads based on actual statements from the 1800 campaign:
The difference is that the 2012 campaign won't result in the election of an Adams or a Jefferson.