Prof: Just like Obama, Hoover rode into office on a wave of popularity
by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · March 04, 2009
Democrats might not like this comparison, but one historian thinks that President Herbert Hoover and President Barack Obama have two significant things in common: both rode a wave of popularity into office and both will likely see hard economic times mark their presidencies.
Obama, however, has the chance to learn from Hoover’s mistakes. And the things he did right.
“This might be a warning for President Obama and others in the future,” Hoover historian and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history professor Glen Jeansonne said. “Entering office on a great wave of popularity is no guarantee of maintaining it when you leave office.”
Jeansonne’s comments, as well as those of Hoover Library-Museum Director Timothy Walch, come after C-SPAN on Feb. 12 released a ranking of all 42 former presidents, with Hoover earning a spot at No. 34.
His ranking puts him ahead of John Tyler, George W. Bush, Millard Fillmore, Warren G. Harding, William Henry Harrison, Franklin D. Pierce, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan. But both Jeansonne and Walch think Hoover ought to be much higher, perhaps in the upper half.
Hoover’s overall ranking remains unchanged since C-SPAN’s 2000 survey (which Walch participated in), though his total score dropped from 400 in 2000 to 389 in 2009 as he did move in some of the subcategories:
• Moral authority: 28th, down from 24th in 2000.
Hoover, a Quaker, was known for being very religious, both men said.
“I would rank him higher than many of the presidents above him,” Walch said.
Jeansonne said that Hoover did not have a major scandal in his administration, so he should not rank lower than Ulysses S. Grant (23rd in this category), whom he considers one of the most corrupt presidents in history; or John F. Kennedy (11th), known for being “ruthlessly manipulative, had contact with the mafia and extramarital affairs.” Walch notes that James K. Polk (24th) “seized land from Mexicans,” Woodrow Wilson (sixth) was an “avowed racist,” and Franklin D. Roosevelt (third) “turned away boatloads of Jews.”
“I’m not sure of the definition of ‘moral authority’ here,” Walch said.
• Administrative skills: 10th, up from 11th in 2000.
Walch also questioned the basis for deciding how “administrative skills” were calculated. He agrees that Hoover should rank higher than most presidents in this category, and that this ranking is low for him, too.
Jeansonne agrees, saying that FDR, ranked third, ran a “loose ship,” though Jeansonne considers himself one of Roosevelt’s admirers.
“His administrative line of authority was not very clear, his bureaucracy was wasteful and he had overlapping jobs within his administration,” the professor said.
Harry Truman was a “moderate administrator,” he said, and Dwight Eisenhower “delegated everything.”
“Eisenhower wasn’t a hands-on president,” Jeansonne said.
Jeansonne said that the historians who voted in the 2009 survey seemed to be “voting more in general for the name than the specific attribute.”
He said that Hoover got “a great deal” out of Congress until 1932, when the presidential elections were on everybody’s minds.
• Economic management: 41st, unchanged from 2000.
Even though James Buchanan ranked dead last overall in this category, neither Walch nor Jeansonne believes contemporary pundits will replace Hoover with Buchanan when selecting a whipping boy on the economy.
“They’ve created a boogey man,” Walch said. “If you say ‘the worst president since Buchanan,’ no one will know him. It’s more of a rhetorical device than a point of truth. Hoover didn’t precipitate the collapse of the economy.”
• Performance within Context of the Times: 37th, down from 36th in 2000.
Jeansonne said he found this particular ranking the one where Hoover was “most unfairly treated.”
“Consider the difficulty of the time in which they governed,” he said. “Very few presidents have governed in times more difficult than Hoover did. I don’t think very many people except historians realize how much Hoover mitigated the effects of the (Great) Depression.”
Walch said he was surprised that Hoover did not rank lower.
“The irony is what kept Hoover from going lower: We made George W. Bush a worse president, propping (Hoover) up,” he said.
Walch wonders how James Garfield could rank higher than Hoover since Garfield was shot two months after being sworn in and died four months after that.
“This makes him the 29th best president in the United States?” he asked.
• Crisis leadership: 39th, unchanged from 2000.
On the same note, Walch questioned the sense of William Henry Harrison, who died a month after giving his inauguration speech in the rain, ranking one notch higher than Hoover under “Crisis Leadership.”
In other subcategories, Hoover ranked 38th in public persuasion, down from 37th in 2000; 25th in international relations, unchanged from 2000; 30th in relations with Congress, up from 34th in 2000; 38th in Vision/Setting an Agenda, down from 37th in 2000; and 31st in pursuing equal justice for all, unchanged from 2000.
Jeansonne said he would have been interested to survey the historians who participated and see how many have spent time researching at the Hoover Presidential Library. He also noted that the survey was somewhat influenced by voting by the general public.
“(The public) probably knew even less than the historians and in factoring in that academic historians are predominantly liberal and prejudiced against Hoover, they are not interested in doing research about him,” Jeansonne said.
Walch laughed when he said he intentionally ranked Hoover higher in the 2000 survey because he also believed his counterparts leaned left.
“I was trying to skew the survey,” Walch smiled. “I knew a lot of other people would rank him low. I’ve admitted gross corruption.”
Walch said he would swap Hoover for Calvin Coolidge, ranked 27th, at the very least, or as much as 20th. He would group Hoover with Jimmy Carter, Coolidge and Richard Nixon.
“Nixon precipitated his own crises, but he also did China,” he said, referring to Nixon’s historic 1972 diplomatic breakthrough.
Jeansonne said he could not rank Hoover as a “great president” like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington or FDR.
“But I don’t think Hoover deserves to be ranked near the bottom,” he said.
He also would have put Hoover at 20th or “a few spots above that.”
Both Walch and Jeansonne said it is difficult to compare presidents since each faces unique circumstances.