The greatest example of anticlimax in the English language, said William F. Buckley, was the final line in the unofficial anthem of his undergraduate college: “For God, for country, and for Yale.”
Buckley’s anticlimax now faces a challenge from an even shorter phrase: “The Obama Administration” is on the road to becoming the most anticlimactic expression known to man.
President Obama swept into office on a tide of Lincoln and FDR comparisons. A giddy press corps swooned every time he spoke; his cabinet was a ‘team of rivals’ like Lincoln’s. His mandate, the press said, was to be a transformative president, like FDR. The more sober said he would be a Democratic Reagan: just as the Californian led the country into a generation of conservative politics, so President Obama would lead Democrats into permanent majoritarian status.
This was the consensus of the mainstream press; it was also the opinion of the President’s inner circle. Based on that consensus, the President made the decisions which, if he fails of re-election in 2012, history will likely regard as the fatal mistakes of his term: he went along with the flawed and failed stimulus program the Democratic Congress put forward, and he pushed forward on health care reform before economic recovery was assured.
In reality, President Obama’s mandate was not to be a transformer; he was elected to conserve. In 2008 the independents who elected Obama by deserting the GOP were tired of the drama of the Bush administration and they were terrified by the financial panic that followed the failure of Lehman Brothers. What they wanted was another Bill Clinton: a calm and soothing figure who would feel their pain and tweak the New Deal/Great Society state model to make it a little more user-friendly and a little less bankruptcy prone.
Midway through 2010, President Obama looked less like Lincoln redux and more like a Clinton manqué. By the end of that year, the penultimate dissing of the President began; friends and foes began to ask whether President Obama might not be, gasp, the new Jimmy Carter.
Instapundit maestro Glenn Reynolds has been saying for some time that from where he sits, the Carter comparison looks like a best case scenario for this President. For all our sakes, I hope Glenn is wrong, but increasingly there’s another specter frightening the Obama administration: the ghost of Herbert Hoover.
Herbert Hoover (Wikimedia Commons)
Like Obama, Hoover was the child of a broken home with an unconventional background. He was far more widely traveled than most Americans in his day, and his time overseas made him a globalist in his thinking in many ways. His wife (Lou Henry Hoover) was unusually well educated and assertive — at a time when few women went to college, she graduated from coeducational Stanford with a degree in geology. Hoover was an unconventional candidate who came into office on a tidal wave of support. Hoover, Secretary of Commerce during the Roaring Twenties, had never held elected office before winning the presidency. His campaign went deep into enemy territory, winning over solidly Democratic states in what was still the deep blue South including (like Obama) Florida, Virginia and North Carolina. Hoover was the great progressive hope of his day — he had supported Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 Bull Moose campaign and was seen as much more forward looking and progressive than the party machine. He ran on the most diverse presidential ticket until Barack Obama’s own election in 2008; Hoover’s running mate, Kaw nation member Charles Curtis, was the first Native American and the first American with significant non-European ancestry to serve as Vice President of the United States. Hoover continued to burnish his diversity credentials in the White House; he was the first president since Theodore Roosevelt to invite an African American to a White House dinner and he wanted progress on Native American issues to be a hallmark of his administration. Hoover was also deeply concerned about the health of the middle class and the condition of the poor. He was an early backer of the long term, low interest mortgage that became the cornerstone of middle class finance, and he came into office hoping that prosperity would eliminate poverty in the United States.
In office, Hoover showed many of the same foreign policy instincts as President Obama. He was a strong supporter of disarmament, focusing on naval buildups as the greatest danger of the day. He began the withdrawal of US forces his predecessors had committed in Haiti and Nicaragua, hoping to push the reset button on US relations with Latin America. He sought to avoid confrontational US statements and to downplay possible grounds for conflict. His strong humanitarian instincts (he had led efforts to relieve starving Europeans during and after World War One) made him reluctant to use force but also left him concerned about the well being of people in other countries.
But what worries — or should worry — the White House is this: despite his long record of progressive politics, his personal appeal and his sympathy for the downtrodden, President Hoover is best remembered for failing to master the Great Depression. Six months into his term, the stock market crashed; for the next three and a half years the economy continued to deteriorate. By the time of the 1932 presidential election, Hoover was so widely discredited in the minds of shell shocked voters that Franklin D. Roosevelt swept into office, ending a Republican domination of national politics that dated back to the Civil War.
The problem was not that Hoover didn’t try. He had long been known as a leading progressive, and in the face of the Depression he was ready to countenance a significant expansion of the government’s role. His Reconstruction Finance Corporation would be taken over by FDR; it lent money to distressed companies in an effort to jump start the economy. He proposed the creation of a federal Department of Education; he was willing to countenance significant budget deficits and supported important public works projects (like Boulder Dam) as a way of stimulating employment and rebuilding confidence in the economy.
None of it worked. The economy was suffering from a combination of domestic and international maladies that were not well understood at the time — at least not by the President and his closest advisers. Political constraints prevented the President from pursuing some useful ideas — like a moratorium on World War One debts that might have helped kick-start the European economy. As the political situation worsened and the panic grew, bad ideas — like the Smoot-Hawley protectionist trade bill — became harder to resist. Misguided monetary policy at the Fed made things worse, and as the opposition party gained strength, Hoover gradually lost the authority to lead.
The Great Recession is not as crushing as the Great Depression, but President Obama’s problems in the face of economic turmoil are beginning to look Hooveresque. The stimulus program on which he hung his hat may, as its friends argue, have prevented an even worse economic debacle. Clearly, however, the $800 billion plus stimulus failed to jump-start an economic recovery. Many of the administration’s pet stimulus programs have joined Jerry Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now” buttons on the junkpile of history: green jobs, cash for clunkers, debt relief for homeowners, and now, by the President’s own admission, ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure projects.
Like Hoover, President Obama now finds himself (at least temporarily) without the ability to shape national economic policy. His opponents in Congress will block the kind of second stimulus his instincts and allies propose, and the Fed is not at this point particularly impressed by the White House’s recovery plan and is acting on its own. Like Hoover, President Obama faces the possibility of a devastating second downturn due to economic problems in Europe — and like President Hoover, President Obama can’t do much to prevent it. Like Hoover, President Obama is harried by a domestic populist revolt against his leadership and the policies he supports and like Hoover, President Obama’s once unassailable popularity is being slowly ground down by economic bad news.
As President Obama struggles, again, to gain control of the economic conversation and relaunch his administration’s economic policy (how many times has this administration announced its determination to focus on job creation?) the similarities between these two idealistic and patriotic men begin to emerge. In both cases we have a President who thought that his mission was to remake the world, but who gradually discovered that the tools in his toolkit were no match for the problems he faced. With great intelligence and serious goodwill, both men set about to address the most important issues facing the country and the world — only to find that their chosen remedies failed one by one.
I am not convinced that the President’s political goose is cooked — yet. For one thing, luck can never be discounted. Recessions don’t last forever, anymore than booms do, and American capitalism is strong enough to stage a recovery in the face of poor policy. But luck aside, the President can still avoid the great mistake that finally wrecked Hoover: the failure to learn.
President Hoover brought some convictions with him to office about how the economy worked, how government worked, and what his role as President should be. As the Depression deepened, he did the best he could within those limits, but nothing seems to have made him reconsider the mix of progressive ideas that he brought with him to the White House. As months of failure and disappointment grew into years, he doesn’t seem to have questioned those core ideas or to think about ways in which the economic emergency might require steps that in normal times would not be taken. He not only failed to end the Depression; he failed to give people a sense that he understood what was happening. Over-optimistic forecasts issued in part to build confidence came back to haunt him. To the public he seemed fuddled and doctrinaire, endlessly recycling stale platitudes in the face of radically new economic problems.
That’s beginning to sound a little like the current President’s predicament. Unless Lady Luck should emerge from retirement to sprinkle some growth dust on the economy, the President could find himself looking more Hooveresque by the day. Worse, President Obama faces problems that Hoover did not have — notably the five shooting wars on his hands in Afghanistan, tribal Pakistan, Iraq, Libya and now, apparently, Yemen.
Lincoln, Clinton, Carter, Hoover: that is a trajectory no President should want — nor will the country benefit from 18 more months of Presidential subsidence. One hopes the White House realizes just how much trouble it, and we, are in.