Without Our Noticing, Obama Became Hoover -- So Who Will Be the New Roosevelt?

Last Updated Nov 3, 2010 5:56 PM EDT

President Obama's electoral setback has brought up comparisons to presidents ranging from Clinton to Reagan. That may be wishful thinking. Although it's entirely possible that the economy could begin to turn around by 2012, allowing Obama a comeback re-election victory like Clinton and Reagan before him -- remember, the guy has approval ratings that are still higher than both of those presidents had during their mid-term defeats and Obama is still better liked than Congress itself -- there's a looming possibility that we're looking at one-term president.

During the final weeks of Obama's election campaign, there was open talk that George W. Bush would be remembered as another Herbert Hoover. But the historical analogy was misapplied. What so many hopeful Democrats forgot was that the Great Depression did not begin at the end of Hoover's presidency but at the beginning. For three long years, Hoover presided over frustrating attempts to revive the American economy. In those days too, they had hoped for a V-shaped recovery.

Of course, it never came. In the process, Hoover was caricatured as a heartless, clueless relic of the old regime. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Before the cataclysm of the depression, Herbert Hoover had been one of the most able and celebrated figures in history. His rise from poverty to technocratic wizard to humanitarian charted the world's hopes for a new class of talented engineers who might someday eliminate poverty and suffering.

For those who don't know, Herbert Hoover's biography is more like Obama's than Bush's. He was elected president with less political experience than Obama -- in fact, he'd never been elected to office at all. A Quaker orphan from Iowa, he made his name as a logistical genius in the mining industry in Australia and China. Those skills furthered his reputation as a humanitarian when he became famous feeding Belgium during World War I and directing the massive relief efforts surrounding the Mississippi Flood of 1927.

No man could have a better resume for dealing with the Great Depression -- at least, no man had more experience with addressing large-scale dislocation and deprivation -- than Herbert Hoover. Though the sentiments are forgotten to history, the hopes Americans had for Hoover were no less than the emotional investment made in Barack Obama two years ago.

Both presidents suffered because of their unwillingness to change their beliefs. Obama thought he was elected to reform American politics and Hoover could never violate the principles of self-reliance that had formed his personal success. Though the Hoover administration created many programs that would foreshadow the New Deal, Hoover's own rhetoric and belief refused to embrace the idea of an expanded state. He would certainly never have countenanced a welfare state.

All of those innovations would come later, under Roosevelt, when the country's exhaustion from and fear over the persistence of the economic collapse opened the possibility of new ideas. Though we remember the New Deal backwards, as an unalloyed success, during the entire Depression there was a level of political warfare taking place that makes the Tea Party look like, well, a tea party.

Obama too has been surprisingly backward-looking throughout these last two years. Though it is hardly fair, his three most visible efforts at combating the economic crisis have been mostly defensive efforts to hold off a complete collapse. Would anyone really have saved the banks, auto companies and state governments (the stimulus is largely considered a failure because the bulk of the money was spent simply maintaining state and local payrolls instead of initiating long-term infrastructure projects) in their present form unless they absolutely had to?

And despite the calls for nationalization, unsupported bankruptcy and calls for fiscal restraint in state legislatures across the country, no one has put forward a credible alternative for propping up all three sectors. So while Obama expended his political capital on healthcare and was left Atlas-like holding up three sclerotic life-blood "industries," we're still waiting for the emergence of a political figure who can offer a true break from the past and plausible vision of the future.

Increasingly, for all his talents and importance as a historical figure, Barack Obama is not looking like the man to carry us through to a new era.

Image of Herbert Hoover portrait courtesy of Cliff1066 via Flickr