On 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.