Ed Driscoll

He's a Smoot Operator

As Walter Russell Mead writes, in 2008, voters wanted another Bill Clinton, or at least the post-1994 version of Clinton. But what they got was a president whose policies were melange of the worst of Al Gore, John Kerry, Jimmy Carter and Bill’s first two years in office:

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.

Hoover? Gosh, who could have seen that coming — I mean, besides the entire starboard half of the Blogosphere, that is. Back in July of 2009, when far-left Harper’s magazine crafted the above illustration of Obama as Hoover, I wrote:

In the past, Harper’s magazine has been so far ahead of the news cycle that Lewis Lapham, their venerable arch-liberal former editor, didn’t even bother to wait for the Republicans’ 2004 convention to actually occur before filing a story on its events. But, as I noticed in a Denver airport newsstand before flying back Sunday afternoon from a weekend confab with my partner in punditry at PJM Political, they’re running a cover story this month titled “Barack Hoover Obama.”

Gosh, there’s a shocker of a headline.

Last year, Orrin Judd, co-proprietor of the long-running Brothers Judd site and I repeatedly referenced variations on  “Smoot-Hawley 2008”, as we riffed on echoes from Obama and his advisors on the campaign trail similar to the disastrous anti-free trade bill that Hoover reluctantly signed off in 1930, one of the first of many missteps the progressive Hoover and FDR both made on the way to prolonging the Depression far longer than it needed to be. As Mark Steyn presciently noted, other nations had economic Depressions at the start of the 1930s; the US had a Great Depression, earning that added sobriquet due to its needless longevity.

In October of 2008, in possibly the first reverse-Lapham ever, Hugh Hewitt wrote a blog post in October of 2008 with nearly the same title as Harper’s article this month. Back in August of ’08, Jim McTague of Barron’s magazine wrote, “It’s almost as if Obama wants to repeat the mistakes of Herbert Hoover.” (Watch CNBC video from last August here, which references that quote.) And Jeffery Lord of the American Spectator ran an article in December last year titled “Obama as Hoover”, even as Obama was merely Photoshopping signs promoting the otherwise powerless “Office of the President Elect.”

(And heaven knows Time and Newsweek have endlessly compared Obama to FDR; which means they’re tacitly comparing him to Hoover’s similar economic policies as well, even if they don’t know it.)

Mead concludes:

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.

But when the president is reduced to blaming bank ATM machines as his current modified limited hangout to explain why his Hoover Dam-sized stimulus has failed to work, it seems safe to say, as Peter Wehner wrote last week, “Obama Has No Idea How Vulnerable He Is.”