It's not what you might think. Baker - a historian, a terrific writer, and an email friend of mine - paints a portrait of a US president that few of us know: a brilliant, committed, engaged, compassionate activist.
He first came to national attention after the start of World War I, when he led the effort to feed the 7 million people of occupied Belgium and France. He worked for free, donated part of his own fortune to the cause, and risked his life repeatedly crossing the U-boat–infested waters of the North Atlantic. His postwar relief efforts rescued millions more throughout Europe and especially in the Soviet Union; it's unlikely that any other individual in human history saved so many people from death by starvation and want. Questioned about feeding populations under Bolshevik control, he banged a table and insisted, "Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!" In 1920, many people in both major parties wanted to run him for president, but he opted for the Republican cabinet. As secretary of commerce under Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, he was a dynamic figure, tirelessly promoting new technologies, work-safety rules, and voluntary industry standards; he supervised relief to Mississippi and Louisiana during the terrible 1927 floods and advocated cooperation between labor and management.
"We had summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us; now we sat back comfortably and confidently to watch the problems being solved," the journalist Anne O'Hare McCormick wrote of Hoover's inauguration in March 1929, in words that might easily have been used in January 2009. "Almost with the air of giving genius its chance, we waited for the performance to begin."
But Hoover failed to seize the moment and make the necessary radical changes that the circumstances required - exactly what Obama is doing (or not doing) now. The parallels between Hoover and Obama, both in personal profile and career, are compelling and very enlightening.
The online version of this feature is subscription only, but someone who subscribes might lend you their login hint hint, or you can pick up a hard copy at a bookstore. You could worse things with $6 than invest in a Harper's.
Here's a preview.
Barack Hoover Obama: The best and the brightest blow it again
By Kevin Baker
Three months into his presidency, Barack Obama has proven to be every bit as charismatic and intelligent as his most ardent supporters could have hoped. At home or abroad, he invariably appears to be the only adult in the room, the first American president in at least forty years to convey any gravitas. Even the most liberal of voters are finding it hard to believe they managed to elect this man to be their president.
It is impossible not to wish desperately for his success as he tries to grapple with all that confronts him: a worldwide depression, catastrophic climate change, an unjust and inadequate health-care system, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ongoing disgrace of Guantnamo, a floundering education system.
Obama's failure would be unthinkable. And yet the best indications now are that he will fail, because he will be unable — indeed he will refuse — to seize the radical moment at hand.
Every instinct the president has honed, every voice he hears in Washington, every inclination of our political culture urges incrementalism, urges deliberation, if any significant change is to be brought about. The trouble is that we are at one of those rare moments in history when the radical becomes pragmatic, when deliberation and compromise foster disaster. The question is not what can be done but what must be done.
We have confronted such emergencies only a few times before in the history of the Republic: during the secession crisis of 1860–61, at the start of World War II, at the outset of the Cold War and the nuclear age. Probably the moment most comparable to the present was the start of the Great Depression, and for the scope and the quantity of the problems he is facing, Obama has frequently been compared with Franklin Roosevelt. So far, though, he most resembles the other president who had to confront that crisis, Herbert Hoover.
The comparison is not meant to be flippant. It has nothing to do with the received image of Hoover, the dour, round-collared, gerbil-cheeked technocrat who looked on with indifference while the country went to pieces. To understand how dire our situation is now it is necessary to remember that when he was elected president in 1928, Herbert Hoover was widely considered the most capable public figure in the country. Hoover — like Obama — was almost certainly someone gifted with more intelligence, a better education, and a greater range of life experience than FDR. And Hoover, through the first three years of the Depression, was also the man who comprehended better than anyone else what was happening and what needed to be done. And yet he failed.
The story of the real Herbert Hoover reads like something out of an Indiana Jones script, with touches of Dickens and the memoirs of Albert Schweitzer.
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More frustrating has been the torpor among Obama's fellow Democrats. One might have assumed that the adrenaline rush of regaining power after decades of conservative hegemony, not to mention relief at surviving the depredations of the Bush years, or losing the vestigial tail of the white Southern branch of the party, would have liberated congressional Democrats to loose a burst of pent-up, imaginative liberal initiatives.
Instead, we have seen a parade of aged satraps from vast, windy places stepping forward to tell us what is off the table. Every week, there is another Max Baucus of Montana, another Kent Conrad of North Dakota, another Ben Nelson of Nebraska, huffing and puffing and harrumphing that we had better forget about single-payer health care, a carbon tax, nationalizing the banks, funding for mass transit, closing tax loopholes for the rich. These are men with tiny constituencies who sat for decades in the Senate without doing or saying anything of note, who acquiesced shamelessly to the worst abuses of the Bush Administration and who come forward now to chide the president for not concentrating enough on reducing the budget deficit, or for "trying to do too much," as if he were as old and as indolent as they are.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — yet another small gray man from a great big space where the tumbleweeds blow — seems unwilling to make even a symbolic effort at party discipline. Within days of President Obama's announcing his legislative agenda, the perpetually callow Indiana Senator Evan Bayh came forward to announce the formation of a breakaway caucus of fifteen "moderate" Democrats from the Midwest who sought to help the country make "the changes we need" but "make sure that they're done in a practical way that will actually work" — a statement that was almost Zen-like in its perfect vacuousness. Even most of the Senate's more enlightened notables, such as Russ Feingold of Wisconsin or Claire McCaskill of Missouri or Sherrod Brown of Ohio, have had little to contribute beyond some hand-wringing whenever the idea of a carbon tax or any other restrictions on burning coal are proposed.
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Franklin Roosevelt also took office imagining that he could bring all classes of Americans together in some big, mushy, cooperative scheme. Quickly disabused of this notion, he threw himself into the bumptious give-and-take of practical politics; lying, deceiving, manipulating, arraying one group after another on his side — a transit encapsulated by how, at the end of his first term, his outraged opponents were calling him a "traitor to his class" and he was gleefully inveighing against "economic royalists" and announcing, "They are unanimous in their hatred for me — and I welcome their hatred."
Obama should not deceive himself into thinking that such interest-group politics can be banished any more than can the cycles of Wall Street. It is not too late for him to change direction and seize the radical moment at hand. But for the moment, just like another very good man, Barack Obama is moving prudently, carefully, reasonably toward disaster.