John B. Judis: Barack Obama, You Remind Me of Herbert Hoover

Roundup: Talking About History

[John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic.]

Barack Obama has been compared to almost every American President of the last hundred years--favorably to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan; and unfavorably to Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. I want to put another name in the hat: Herbert Hoover.

It might seem ludicrous, or unfair, to compare Obama to one of the most vilified presidents of the last century, but that’s because Hoover’s reputation is largely, or at least somewhat, undeserved--the product of Democratic attacks and Hoover’s own strident responses to these attacks.

To his contemporaries, Hoover had been the American most suited to be president. He had performed brilliantly as head of the American Relief Administration after World War I. In 1920, The New Republic and Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged him to run for president as a Democrat. Hoover chose not to run. Instead, he became perhaps the greatest of all commerce secretaries. He was responsible, among other things, for persuading industry to reduce overall costs by standardizing industrial parts and tools. Because of Hoover’s innovations, an auto mechanic could repair any American car.

Hoover was also not a conservative Republican like Calvin Coolidge, but a progressive who believed that capital and labor could work together with the encouragement of a beneficent government. In 1928, Hoover won the presidency in a landslide, and might have enjoyed success if the Great Depression had not intervened. Still, Hoover responded to the greatest economic crisis in the nation’s history... “The Hoover administration,” biographer Joan Hoff Wilson wrote, “became the first in American history to use the power of the federal government to intervene directly in the economy in time of peace.”...

But Hoover failed, finally, because he shared the same assumptions about deficit spending and government intervention as most other politicians and economists of his day. He was willing for government to do more to combat the business cycle, but he feared that enlarging the state would lead to Soviet-style socialism, and he thought that in the end the economy would right itself the way it had before. Hoover had the potential to be a very good president, but he was overwhelmed by the unprecedented challenges that he faced....

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