June
21st 2009
Barack Hoover Obama or Barack Delano Roosevelt?

Posted under: American history

bhoOn the airplane yesterday, I read an interesting article in the July 2009 Harper’s Magazine by Kevin Baker called “Barack Hoover Obama:  the best and brightest blow it again” (sorry, it’s subscription only.)  It’s a scathing review of Obama’s performance in office so far by way of a comparison with Herbert Hoover, and a dire prediction, as the title of the article suggests.  (Congress–especially the “aged satraps from vast, windy places” who are running the U.S. Senate these days–comes in for its share of withering criticism, as does the “utter fecklessness of the American elite” in general.)

Baker tries to draw a number of comparisons between Hoover and Obama in his short biography of Hoover and assessment of his presidency:  a fatherless but plucky boy who put himself through Stanford University to study geology and engineering, and who then struck it rich as an intrepid miner in China and Burma.  Retired from mining at age 40 with a tidy fortune, he turned his engineering skills to public service, becoming one of the first modern experts in humanitarian relief on behalf of several early 20th century disaster refugees:  Chinese Christians in the Boxer Rebellion, 7 million people living in occupied France and Belgium during World War I, 20 million postwar Western Europeans and Soviets, and residents of the Mississippi Valley after the floods of 1927.  About Hoover’s inauguration as president, Baker quotes journalist Anne O’Hare McCormick, “‘We had summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us; now we sat back comfortably and confidently to watch the problems being solved. . . . Almost with an air of giving genius its chance, we waited for the performance to begin.’”

Now, from what I understand, Obama’s biography is dramatically different from Hoover’s:  instead of a career in industry or the law, he returned to Chicago after law school and like Bill Clinton, went almost immediately into politics.  Aside from the fatherlessness of both Hoover and Obama, the similarity Baker sees seems to be in the minds of the American people anticipating masterful presidencies, not in the two men being compared here.  But, I have read next to nothing about the years 1914-1945, so I’d really be interested to hear what the rest of you think.

Here are some more specifics on the comparisons Baker draws between our current moment and 1929.  As Baker writes, “[g]enius got its chance less than nine months after Hoover was sworn in, when the stock market collapsed.”  He continues, apparently aided by David M. Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear:  The American People in Depression and War (1999),

Hoover–much like Obama–plunged right in, with a response that was designed to rise above old ideological battles and effect a new partnership between the public and the private sectors.  Less than a month after the Wall Street crash, he began what would be weeks of meetings at the White House with hundreds of “key men” from the business world. . . . He also encouraged public and private construction projects, signed bills recognizing the right of unions to organize, and used the fledgling Federal Reserve both to ease credit and to discourage banks from calling in their stock-market loans.

(There are more details here comparing Hoover’s programs to TARP and welfare for the banksters.)  In the end, what made Hoover so ineffective?  According to Baker,

Hoover’s every decision in fighting the Great Depression mirrored the sentiments of 1920s “business progressivism,” even as he understood intellectually that something more was required.  Farsighted as he was compared with almost everyone else in public life, believeing as much as he did in activist government, he still could not convince himself to take the next step and accept that the basic economic tenets he had believed in all his life were discredited; that something wholly new was required.

This is Baker’s big comparison between Hoover and Obama:

Much like Herbert Hoover, Barack Obama is a man attempting to realize a stirring new vision of his society without cutting himself free from the dogmas of the past–without accepting the inevitable conflict.  Like Hoover, his is bound to fail.

.       .       .       .       .        .       .       .       .       .       

Franklin Roosevelt also took office imagining that he could bring all classes of Americans together in some big, mushy cooperative scheme.  Quickly disabused of this notion, he threw himself into the bumptious give-and-take of practical politics; lying, deceiving, manipulating, arraying one group after another on his side–a transit encapsulated by how, at the end of his first term, his outraged opponents were calling him a “traitor to his class” and he was gleefully inveighing against “economic royalists” and announcing, “They are unanimous in their hatred of me–and I welcome their hatred.”

Obama should not deceive himself into thinking that such interest-group politics can be banished any more than the cycles of Wall Street.  It is not too late for him to change direction and seize the radical moment at hand.  But for the moment, just like another very good man, Barack Obama is moving prudently, carefully, reasonably toward disaster.

The comparisons between Obama and Hoover seem more than a little strained, but I think Baker’s comparisons of 1929 and 2009 may hold up.  (Unfortunately!)  Longstanding readers know that I think  Obama is more like Bill Clinton than any of his other predecessors–and I think my analysis from last spring still rings true.  Baker’s article seems more like a political argument than a solid historical argument, but again–I’d love to hear what you think, especially those of you with expertise in mid-20th century history.

12 Comments »

12 Responses to “Barack Hoover Obama or Barack Delano Roosevelt?”

  1. Emma on 21 Jun 2009 at 11:15 am #

    I don’t have a historical argument, except a very, very minor and obvious one: Obama has 60 Dems in the Congress and a Dem controlled house and he came in with a pretty big mandate for change. While he may be acting like Bill Clinton AFTER Bill lost the Congress in ’94? ’96?, that type of incrementalism was not necessary at this point.

    I still haven’t forgotten Bill’s big plans: gays in the miltary, budget reform, health care reform. And I haven’t forgotten the hostile Congress that screwed him on a lot of his far-sighted plans, exemplified by Dem. Sam Nunn leading the charge against gays in the military with his televised tours of submarines and Robert Byrd not letting Clinton move health care reform through reconciliation.

    Obama’s plans aren’t anywhere near that big even though he has much more favorable political conditions than Bill did. Obama seems more invested in big give after big give to corporate interests, first TARP and now the health care “reform” that isn’t even considering single payer, has no public option to compete with the private insurers, and doesn’t seem to have any real insurance regulation in it. Every time I think of health care reform, I feel sick. It’s just going to be SO bad.

  2. quixote on 21 Jun 2009 at 11:30 am #

    Re Obama and healthcare reform, he was rather pleased with gutting Illinois’ attempt when he was State Senator: “We radically changed [the health care bill] in response to concerns that were raised by the insurance industry.” (Obama, 2004/05/19)”

    That was out there well before the primaries.

    And as for him being like Bill Clinton … :shock:

    I feel stupid arguing with a historian. I’m sure you’re right and I’m wrong. But I can’t see Bill, triangulator that he was, throwing out his pastor of 20 years as soon as he became a political drag instead of a stepping stone. This guy is corrupt to the core in a way that would probably shock even old Nixon.

  3. RKMK on 21 Jun 2009 at 7:31 pm #

    What Emma said.

    Also, I can’t help at look at the State Department, and what a tightly-run ship that is, and wistfully think about what might have been.

  4. Rachel on 22 Jun 2009 at 3:59 pm #

    Well, I do have to say I feel like waving my Hoover flags- my empty pockets have been flying high as historian positions are few and far between. I actually made the same comparison as Baker a few weeks ago. I don’t know if I agree that the comparison between Obama and Hoover is spot on- but I do think, having read quite a bit on the early 20th century and taking classes on the subject at Baa Ram U, that we expected drastic change when Obama was elected, just as people facing the Depression did when Hoover was elected, and have not seen that change (at least I haven’t). When he took office in ‘30, Hoover took a very conservative approach to dealing with the Depression. He felt the government could not and should not compete with private business or employ people, the federal budget should always be balanced, and the government should not give direct aid to the unemployed but should provide in-direct aid. The reason Hoover failed to deal with the Depression is because he was inflexible. Although FDR’s programs did not really get the country out of the Depression, his New Deal did succeed in making people feel like the government was doing something to help them find jobs or support themselves. FDR’s approach to the Depression was not radical by any means, but what made him different from Hoover was that he was willing to experiment.

    Obama has tried a few things, for example the new federal grants for sending older adults back to school, but it doesn’t seem like these types of initiatives have been enough to really get things going. So, I guess the lesson is, Obama cannot continue to walk a conservative line and expect great change. Either we do something different or we look for change elsewhere.

  5. Rachel on 22 Jun 2009 at 6:46 pm #

    Sorry- Hoover took office in ’29

  6. Jeremy Young on 22 Jun 2009 at 7:59 pm #

    I’m no fan of Obama — in fact, I tend to get angry when I even think about him (despite the fact that I voted for him twice). However, I can’t see that he merits comparison with Hoover. I don’t see much evidence that Hoover actually wanted to build a brave new world — he tended to believe that such a world already existed and just needed a little help. Obama at least understands the enormity of the tasks facing him, even if he’s utterly unwilling to spend political capital to accomplish them.

  7. Historiann on 23 Jun 2009 at 10:55 am #

    Wow–you all are pretty cynical!

    I remain hopeful, but not optimistic. I don’t see what he or we are getting out of accommodating center-right Republicans and Blue Dog Dems. Maybe there will be a magical big political payoff down the road–but so far it just looks like Hansel is dropping bread crumbs of compromise along the path only to feed the birds. They won’t help him get home again.

    But, another way in which Obama may resemble Clinton is that his political enemies are so unpalatable and odious that I don’t think they’ll be the direct beneficiaries of Obama’s failures–but we’ll see in 2010 and 2012. One year can be a political lifetime, and 3 years is a political lifetime.

  8. John Morris on 23 Jun 2009 at 7:13 pm #

    A couple of things. If you read John Maynard Keynes’s “The Economic Consequences of the Peace” you will come away thinking of Hoover as a giant, a hero of his time. He was clearly one of the most dedicated and intelligent men of the first half of the 20th Century and is credited with saving millions from starvation after World War one. The article’s thesis is that Hoover spent the three years of his unfortunate presidency shoring up banks and loaning money to major industry while taking no interest in what was happening to ordinary people. In the 1930′s this attitude was labeled, by professor Keynes, as the “Treasury view”. These days it has a couple of other names; monetarism, market economics and my favorite “Rubinomics”. Obama appears to be an adherent, his principle advisers Geithner and Summers certainly are. There is less than a hairline difference in their views or their activities with Hoover’s. The difference that FDR made was, confused by the rolling bank runs, he closed the banks and gave the Fed a short time to recommend both a regulatory regime and a reorganization scheme for them. He asked congress to investigate the crisis and the Peccora committee gave him an outline for a legislative agenda to prevent it the next time. which it did for 50 years. And accurately seeing that the real problem was unemployment, he not only established unemployment insurance, he hired people, including artists to paint murals in post offices, writers to invent a folklore (Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyon, Joe Magarac) and cooks to document our regional diet. My dad, at the age of 16, went out to Wyoming to build Yellowstone National Park as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps. FDR stopped foreclosures by creating the Home Owners Loan Corporation which got around the lender’s resistance to cramdown by giving them a choice between bankruptcy and a discounted sale of the loan and then negotiating a new mortgage based on the homeowner’s ability to make the payment on his income. My great Uncle Robert Coghenour finally paid his house off in 1960 and called my mom the day before I went off to Navy Boot Camp to brag about it. So far, Obama has paid no attention to the important stuff and spent a great deal of money on saving the criminal class and their advantage. He’s got time to get it right but so did Hoover. First, he has to get his head right. I love him, and I love Michelle and I want them to win and I’ll do what I can to help but so far, its not looking good.

  9. GayProf on 24 Jun 2009 at 9:03 am #

    It seems to me that Obama has surrounded himself with some pretty sorry excuses for advisers. While clearly a bright guy himself, if he gets mediocre advice, it will be a mediocre presidency.

    And I am more than a little annoyed (but, sadly, not surprised) that he has shown his willingness to toss the gay folk under the bus.

  10. Jack Freedman on 06 Aug 2009 at 6:46 am #

    I especially liked John Morris comment and would appreciate it if he could contact me via the website I listed.

    I drew some similar conclusions and would like to start a dialogue on these and other matters. Morris nailed a lot of stuff and did a first rate analysis.

  11. Assemble your own Frankenstein President! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 03 Jan 2010 at 12:59 pm #

    [...] a Democratic value, of course, at least since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Andy Jackson!)  I wrote last summer about Kevin Baker’s comparison of Obama to Herbert Hoover, and recently, it’s become fashionable to proclaim that Obama is George W. Bush’s [...]

  12. Barack Hoover Obama, I presume : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 08 Jul 2011 at 10:07 am #

    [...] Kevin Baker called his shot about Obama more than two years ago: Hoover’s every decision in fighting the Great Depression mirrored the sentiments of 1920s [...]

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