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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kevin Baker: Is Obama the Next Hoover?

An account of the new Harper's treatment of the real parallels between Herbert Hoover and Barack Obama, via Lynn Parramore at New Deal Democrat

Unless Obama changes course, he’ll look more like Hoover than FDR
July 8, 2009
Lynn Parramore

Since his inauguration and even before, Barack Obama has garnered countless comparisons to FDR. In this month’s Harper’s magazine, Kevin Baker says there’s a more apt presidential parallel: Herbert Hoover.

Baker writes:

“The comparison is not meant to be flippant. It has nothing to do with the received image of Hoover, the dour, round-collared, gerbil-cheeked technocrat who looked on with indifference while the country went to pieces. To understand how dire our situation is now it is necessary to remember that when he was elected president in 1928, Herbert Hoover was widely considered the most capable public figure in the country. Hoover—like Obama—was almost certainly someone gifted with more intelligence, a better education, and a greater range of life experience than FDR. And Hoover, through the first three years of the Depression, was also the man who comprehended better than anyone else what was happening and what needed to be done. And yet he failed.”

The piece does as much to restore Hoover’s image in the American imagination as it does to offer a counter-comparison for Obama, and for that restoration, Baker’s article is worth a read (even if it’s behind a subscription wall).

Why does Hoover seem such an apt archetype? He was, as Obama is, statesmanlike, cosmopolitan, insightful, even visionary:

“As the Depression spread around the world, Hoover—like Obama—towered above the squabbling, suspicious leaders of Europe as well. Only Hoover, who had lived all around the world (like Obama) and also been part of the U.S. delegation at Versailles, seemed to understand the true threat the Depression posed to the global economy. Democratic forms of government were under assault everywhere in the West, and especially in the Weimar Republic, still staggering under the indemnity the victorious Allies had imposed on Germany in 1919. Hoover sought to alleviate the growing world credit crunch by pushing through a moratorium on the repayment of Europe’s considerable war debt to the United States—on the condition that the Allies also forgave Germany its indemnity. It was an example of statesmanship at its most enlightened, and if any single U.S. action at the time could have prevented the rise of the Nazis to power, this would have been it.”

So what did Hoover and his policies in? The same thing Obama is now doing: Following conventional economic wisdom. Baker writes:

“As Europe faltered, for instance, foreign gold began to flow out of America’s banks and back home. Hoover reacted by increasing interest rates and raising taxes, in an effort to further deflate the economy, balance the federal budget, and thereby lure the gold back. This was the textbook economic response of the time to fleeing gold reserves; in the midst of the Great Depression, it was a disaster….

“Why was Herbert Hoover so reluctant to make the radical changes that were so clearly needed?….Ultimately, Hoover could not break with the prevailing beliefs of his day. The essence of the Progressive Era in which he had come of age—the very essence of his own public image—was that government was ascience. It was not a coincidence that this era brought us the very term ‘political science,’ along with the advent of “nonpartisan” elections and ‘city managers’ to replace mayors.”

The First World War and the roaring ’20s pushed away memories of what came before — Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting progressivism and a prevailing culture of “bitter class conflict,” in Baker’s words.

To be fair, Baker says, it’s not all Obama’s fault: He is politically more alone than Hoover was, and Obama’s own party moderates, at best, and dithers, at worst. Nevertheless, Obama is making one classic Hooverian mistake:

“…Obama’s decision to leave the reordering of the financial world solely to Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, both of whom played such a major role in deregulating Wall Street and bringing on the disaster in the first place…[is] as if, after winning election in 1932, FDR had brought Andrew Mellon back to the Treasury. Just as Herbert Hoover could not, in the end, break away from the best economic advice of the 1920s, Barack Obama is sticking with the “key men” of the 1990s.”

Even Obama, it turns out, needs a little change he can believe in.

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