Last year around this time, far left Harper’s magazine, unwittingly echoing similar comparisons made during the presidential race by the starboard half of the Blogosphere (including by your humble narrator), finally stumbled upon the similarities between progressive presidents Obama and Hoover, creating the above graphic in the process.
Obama as the second coming of Herbert Hoover? We should be so lucky, Roger L. Simon wrote late last night:
Barack Obama made a dull speech on Tuesday evening. And he made a frightened speech — an overly careful assembly of energy cliches likely to be remembered by no one. All this in the face of the greatest ecological catastrophe in American history, the seemingly unending oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
This was a man playing catch-up, aware that the public is apparently even less enamored of him on this issue than they were of George W. Bush on Katrina. It was time for Obama to show he cared. He didn’t do much of a job of that even. Obama is no Clinton. The current president doesn’t do empathy well. He seems like a man who has to be reminded to be empathic, even though in situations like the Gulf it is the most obvious presidential, really human, behavior. Yet it took him weeks to make this flaccid speech.
But let me be clear. There are many things for which I blame Barack Obama. I could make a long list from hugely destructive government over-spending to a foreign policy that Orwell might call “objectively pro-fascist.” But the oil disaster in the Gulf is not one of them. Barack Obama is no more responsible for the unending leak than Bush was for Katrina.
So he is not to blame for this and he really isn’t to blame that its solution has dragged on and on. He wasn’t elected as scientist-in-chief. He knows nothing about petroleum engineering, just as he knows nothing about global warming. We haven’t had a president with the skills of that type since Herbert Hoover — a mining engineer. In fact, Hoover was the only president we ever had with significant background and expertise to actually take a hands-on approach to a catastrophe of this nature.
Indeed. As Amity Shlaes wrote in September of 2005 in the midst of both the real and media-ginned up aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as she was assembling material for her 2007 book on the Hoover-FDR years, The Forgotten Man:
Even centralisers among them did not see Washington’s role as handling events like Katrina. Towns, counties or, at the very highest, states were responsible for citizen safety. Washington could not intrude uninvited.Sound principles were behind such federalism. The first was local sovereignty: a rescuing Washington was a threatening Washington. There was also the matter of moral hazard: if localities knew they could count on Washington, they would not take care to stay out of harm’s way. Most Americans, moreover, nursed a suspicion that Washington’s bureaucracies might not do important work as well as local authorities did.
There was also a fear of the opposite: that an efficient centralised government would prove so compelling as to make its expansion impossible to check. Inefficiency, the bungling of co-ordination efforts, might even be a good thing, if it slowed the rise of tyrants. Whenever confronting emergency – from uprisings of native Americans to epidemics of influenza – officials thought twice about whether the rescue job was truly Washington’s.
The example of federalism in action most relevant to Katrina was the Mississippi flood of 1927. The flood covered whole states. Waters raging up to 100 feet high drove 1.5m from their homes. The flood destroyed 2m acres of crops, the region’s livelihood.
President Calvin Coolidge paused – and decided the flood was not the president’s job. To manage the rescue he sent Herbert Hoover – his own version of Rudy Giuliani, who got New York back to work after the attacks of four years ago. But the Mississippi rescue was different from the sort expected today. Hoover, the commerce secretary, had no giant government cheques. His role was more that of broker than funder. He negotiated among states; his Red Cross drive raised $15m. When Hoover needed something, he found donors or simply commandeered goods. Sawmills along the river hammered out 1,000 rough wooden boats. Outboard motor manufacturers supplied 1,000 motors (of which only 120 were returned). The Pullman Company provided Hoover with his own train cars – including a dining car – so that he might inspect his refugee camps.
The 1927 rescue was greatly flawed. Bigoted rescuers treated blacks as second-class citizens or worse. Blacks found themselves stranded on levees. Malaria and typhoid plagued camps. Still, the rescue provided a model of leadership that could have been useful this time around. Hoover became so famous he claimed the presidency with ease the following year.
But then, that was when we still bothered to check to see if prospective presidents actually did stuff before running for office.
Update: Forget Hoover; Obama seems to be channeling the spirit of Nancy Reagan, circa 1985: Just say no — to absolutely everything.