White House officials for some time have been drawing comparisons between the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, and the 40th, Ronald Reagan. A truer comparison would be President Obama and Herbert Hoover.
For the past year, I have been researching how the housing bubble of the 1920s contributed to the Great Depression. My study has involved reading numerous articles and speeches by and about Hoover, first as commerce secretary (1921-28), then as president (1929-1933).
The parallels with our current president are astounding.
Hoover and Mr. Obama were both considered extraordinarily intelligent by their supporters.
Hoover, a graduate of Stanford University, was a successful mining engineer who traveled the world until he returned to the United States during World War I. After the war, he organized relief efforts that saved millions from starvation across postwar Europe. A journalist described Hoover as a progressive who “dreams of social justice.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, wanted Hoover to run for president in 1920, as a Democrat. FDR considered Hoover “a wonder … I wish we could make him President of the United States. There couldn’t be a better one.”
But Hoover was a Republican and became commerce secretary and “undersecretary of all other departments,” in the words of one contemporary, under Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.
With his broad portfolio, Hoover became a gadfly, lecturing trade associations on how to eliminate “waste.” He encouraged young FDR to take the helm of the American Construction Council - the umbrella trade association for construction.
Roosevelt thought Hoover’s “scientific” approach to business was better than competitive capitalism. The American people were equally enamored. Despite signs of an economic slowdown, especially in housing, voters in 1928 elected the “brainy idealist” president.
For his part, Hoover promised a “triumph over poverty.” When the economy tanked, he increased government spending, cut taxes, bailed out businesses “too big to fail,” and proposed a massive infrastructure bank to employ men in shovel-ready jobs. Contemporaries called this stimulus package “priming the pump.”
Yet unemployment soared, and the GOP lost control of the House of Representatives in 1930. Hoover blamed his woes on the international economic situation and his political opponents. Sound familiar?
While Mr. Obama can’t match Hoover’s pre-presidential record, he shares the same cast of mind.
Both men can be characterized, impolitely perhaps, as know-it-alls. Is it any wonder that their presidential wizardry failed to impress business?
Outlook magazine, then one of the pre-eminent journals of news and opinion, asked a banker why so many businessmen opposed Hoover’s candidacy. The banker said his firm “has many textile manufacturers as clients … but nobody in the bank would presume to tell our customers how to make rayon.”
Yet Hoover was “confident that he knows more about finance than financiers, more about industry than industrialists, and more about agriculture than agriculturists. He is so sure of his judgment in these fields that he wants to impress it on others. He is very seldom willing to take advice. Since he knows more than any advisers could, why should he?”
Flash forward to today. Mr. Obama also considers himself a brainiac: “I think I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,” Mr. Obama reportedly told an aide in 2008. “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors.”
Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens writes: “How many times have we heard it said that Mr. Obama is the smartest president ever? Even when he’s criticized, his failures are usually chalked up to his supposed brilliance. Liberals say he’s too cerebral for the Beltway.” Mr. Stephens cautioned: “Socrates taught that wisdom begins in the recognition of how little we know.”
Many Americans share the attitude of those disillusioned with Hoover.
In 1931, Americans recalled how they had felt three years prior. Hoover had seemed so wonderful. He had promised to end poverty. He had seemed so smart. But by 1931, people said he beat them down if they were in business, and his speeches sounded robotic.
Perhaps, someday, the Hall of Presidents at Disney World, with its androids motioning stiffly to the audience, will add a new exhibit: Mr. Obama’s teleprompter, now the butt of jokes on the president’s manifest failings.
We all know Hoover’s legacy. It’s starting to look like “deja vu all over again.”
Jonathan Bean is a fellow at the Independent Institute (independent.org), professor of history at Southern Illinois University and author of “Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.”