A week or so ago I finished reading Herbert Hoover: A Public Life. After learning more about Hoover, I found myself thinking that if the birth and death dates were just a little bit different, Barack Obama would have me believing in reincarnation. It would be such a handy explanation. Unfortunately, President Obama was born over 3 years before President Hoover died, so it's just coincidence they have so much in common.
Some of the similarities are obvious, although ideologically Hoover was a lot farther to the left than Obama. Hoover, for example, thought inherited wealth posed a major threat to the well-being of the country and pushed for high inheritance taxes to help break up great fortunes. He was against tax cuts for millionaires and pushed for lower taxes for workers on the low end of the economic scale. He supported unions -- he had the entire press run of a Republican publication destroyed when he learned it was printed in a nonunion shop -- and agreed with the concept of a minimum wage. He had an extremely dim view of banks and bankers, and was constantly battling Wall Street. He was a pacifist and not overly fond of the military -- one of his goals following World War I was arms reduction. He was, in short, an old-fashioned progressive Republican back when the Republicans were still sane. If that was the aspect of Hoover that Obama was channeling, I think I'd be happy.
Unfortunately, Obama seems to have decided some of Hoover's other attributes are the ones to emulate. Hoover was a great believer in cooperation, especially after the great success he'd had with relief efforts in Belgium during World War I and in Europe overall immediately after the war. He truly believed that if you appealed to people's better natures, they'd come through. Businessmen would do the right thing because it was the right thing and not because they were forced to through regulation. As the Depression worsened and banks began to fail, Hoover resisted government intervention and instead appealed to the business community to think of the greater good of the country. The country was circling the drain, and Hoover was hesitant to take any direct federal action. Shades of Obama trying to be reasonable and craft a bipartisan agreement on the budget, the debt ceiling, and everything else.
The end result, of course, is that by the time Hoover left office he was thoroughly reviled. He'd been elected as a hero but went home to California 4 years later with his reputation in shreds. He'd had good intentions, he wanted to do the right thing, but most of his efforts can be summed up simply as "Too little, too late." Sound familiar?
I did find myself wondering if the similarities in their backgrounds had anything to do with similarities in their political style. Although Hoover did know both his parents, he was orphaned young -- his father died when Hoover was 6, and his mother passed away barely 3 years later, leaving Hoover totally dependent on the goodwill of various relatives. Obama didn't know his father, and his mother was absent for long periods of time in his youth. Like Hoover, Obama was dependent on the goodwill of relatives. If you spend your formative years feeling like you've got to keep everyone around you happy, maybe, just maybe, you're going to grow up to be someone with the negotiating skills of a marshmallow.
Incidentally, one thing that's always puzzled me about the Hoover administration was the debacle with the "bonus army." The US army commander, Douglas MacArthur, had been ordered not to march on the encampment. He did anyway, in direct violation of his orders, and Hoover failed to reprimand him. It left many people with the impression that Hoover had approved the brutal attack that left hundreds of civilians injured. End result, of course, is that over time it's Hoover's name that's become irrevocably linked with the mess, not MacArthur's. The book, unfortunately, didn't devote much page space to it -- I had to turn to Wikipedia for enough background to understand just what the issue was that caused the bonus army to assemble in Washington to begin with. Herbert Hoover: A Public Life provides a lot of detail about Hoover's life right up to the Presidency but then turns remarkably thin. Very strange, considering that one would think that the Presidency was the most important part of Hoover's career and it's Hoover's actions (or inactions) as President that are remembered today.