President Franklin D. Roosevelt is shown in his car, May 14, 1936. (AP Photo)

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A short history of Democratic pre-election bed-wetting

“We are officially in the Democratic bedwetting era for the 2024 presidential election” wrote Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign manager Jim Messina in Politico yesterday, as he recounted the overheated panic regarding Obama’s low job approval in late 2011.

This was when the economy was still sluggish, and some Democrats were frustrated by the bipartisan deal linking a debt limit hike to spending cuts. Take a trip back in time to August 2011 and read Jonathan Alter’s Washington Monthly pushback on the criticism of Obama from the left.

(Today, the Monthly continues to champion the anti-bedwetting cause, with Michael Podhorzer and Robert J. Shapiro challenging the obsession with early polling, and yours truly exploring the history of ultimately successful presidents who didn’t get quick credit for an improving economy and overcame ageist attacks.)

The 2011 panic never grew loud enough to draw in a primary challenger, or significant third-party candidate. But naysayers dogged Obama through his first debate with Mitt Romney. Still, the economy improved enough to get Obama a second term.

The history of Democratic bedwetting does not begin with Obama. It at least goes back to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Before we go farther back in the time, here’s what’s leading the Washington Monthly website today.

As recounted in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Politics of Upheaval, in early 1935 Roosevelt’s legislative agenda had stalled in Congress. Members of the Cabinet told a Democratic party elder from the Woodrow Wilson years that the administration was “losing popular strength,” and one assistant secretary said without a drastic course correction Roosevelt would lose in 1936.

Roosevelt dispatched First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to ease the nerves of an anxious Democratic National Committee member. She wrote: “The ups and downs in peoples’ feelings, particularly on the liberal side, are an old, old story. The liberals always get discouraged when they do not see the measures they are interested in go through immediately.” And she concluded, “Franklin says for Heaven’s sake, all you Democratic leaders calm down and feel sure of ultimate success.”

Later in 1935, Roosevelt was able to move another round of New Deal legislation. (Also an expected third-party candidate who could have siphoned off left-wing votes, the flamboyant Louisiana demagogue Huey Long, was murdered.) The following year, Roosevelt was re-elected in a landslide.

Harry S. Truman ascended to the presidency upon the death of Roosevelt in 1945. FDR was a hard act to follow, and many Democrats thought he couldn’t.

According to David McCullough’s Truman, in March 1948, an unimpressed Richard Strout wrote in The New Republic, “Frankly, candidly, we think Harry Truman is licked. We don’t think any ‘crisis atmosphere’ will elect him … [He] isn’t the type of strong man to whom folks turn in time of national danger.”

While Truman was leading Republican Thomas Dewey in a January Gallup poll, by April he was behind by 8. Man of the People by Alonzo L. Hamby partially attributes the springtime plunge in the polls to Truman’s “waffling” over whether to support the formal creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East, which made him seem “weak and not in control.”

By this point, former Truman cabinet member Henry Wallace had launched a left-wing third-party bid and was targeting Jewish voters with strong backing of their cause, causing some Democrats to fret Truman couldn’t keep the party’s coalition together.

So in April, several leading Democrats and labor leaders issued an open call to dump Truman and nominate Dwight D. Eisenhower. “We not only face defeat in November, we face a disintegration of the whole social-democratic block in this country,” warned James Loeb of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, “We cannot compete with the Wallace crowd unless and until we have a national Presidential figure to crusade for.”

Truman recognized the state of Israel in May, and two months later Eisenhower declined to run. But the Wallace campaign continued, joined by another third-party candidate: segregationist Democrat defector Strom Thurmond. With the left and right threads of the Democratic Party fraying, Truman looked doomed. Yet after a furious barnstorming of the country, he won one of the great electoral upsets.

Fast forward to 1994, after Bill Clinton’s Democrats were shellacked in the midterm elections. Immediately, anxious Democrats vented, without attribution, to The New York Times.

“Unless he can rebound quickly,” said a congressperson, “a lot of us would just as soon he didn’t seek re-election.”A White House aide said of a primary challenge, “The question is not really if, but when and from whom.”

In fact, Clinton did draw a primary challenge, from his right flank, by former Pennsylvania Governor and abortion opponent Robert Casey, Sr. (father of the current U.S. Senator.) That campaign lasted about a month in the spring of 1995.

By the end of the year, Clinton re-energized Democrats as he weathered a Republican-instigated government shutdown and refused to concede deep spending cuts. Belatedly receiving credit for a booming economy, Clinton was unopposed for the nomination and coasted to re-election.

We don’t know yet if Joe Biden can overcome this election cycle’s predictable Democratic panic. But if anyone has seen it all before, it’s Joe Biden.

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Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.