Last July's Harper's cover story was an essay by Kevin Baker about how Barack Obama is basically Herbert Hoover 2. Today The New Republic has a story on how Barack Obama is totally Herbert Hoover, redux.
They even use the same "Obama's head on Hoover's body" graphic, with, it looks like, the same reference photo of Hoover. Though Harper's has a lovely illustration by cartoonist-in-residence Mr. Fish and The New Republic has a shitty photoshop (looks more like an MS Paint actually).
Anyway. The gist is, Hoover is misunderstood! He was actually fairly progressive, for his time! He was admired and smart. He was actually totally on top of how severe the Depression was, and he tried very hard to take big steps that would make things better. But he was hamstrung by the limits of his pragmatic worldview. He didn't understand the revolutionary steps that needed to be taken to stabilize the nation. (And he was also beset by a blinkered and comfortable business class and economists who were still applying the discredited old models to the new problems.) Once you read all that there is a big do you see...? moment where you are like "oh man plus Obama has a secretary named Herb and Hoover had a secretary who was secretly born in Indonesia they are the same!"
Making this comparison sound as credible upon elaboration as it is attractive when first proposed requires that you do a couple things, though. You have to overstate Hoover's liberal credentials. You have to overstate his pre-crash accomplishments. You have to explain away his ineffective response to the Depression in a way that makes FDR's response seem impossible. You have to acknowledge the huge structural and institutional roadblocks to radical action that both Hoover and Obama faced without really accounting for how Roosevelt managed to get around them, or firmly deciding whether or not Obama is more inclined toward radical action than Hoover was.
There are obvious and true points of comparison, of course: lots of Obama's economic advisers were complicit in the mess we currently find ourselves in, and their proposals for recovery strike many liberals as too narrow in focus or too business-friendly.
But this liberal rehabilitation of Hoover's legacy, done both to manage expectations for an Obama presidency that fails to deliver on liberal expectations and to subtly chide the President for comparing himself to Roosevelt, is a frankly weird development.
We love a bit of revisionist history, but in this case, as liberals, we are basically totally happy with the received wisdom: that business-friendly Hoover failed, and pro-big government Roosevelt saved us. Christ, you can't really explain away Hoover vetoing a major direct relief program while people were starving in the streets. That is a move that makes him precisely the opposite of Obama: Hoover didn't propose the public works project and then watch it fail in the Senate. Is there much doubt that Obama would sign any major liberal legislation that survived the legislative process intact?
And this Hoover mania comes as the Right has basically decided upon its own alternate history: that Roosevelt caused, or made worse, the Great Depression.
Has anyone compared Obama to Ulysses Grant, yet? He was probably the best writer ever elected, and his many wonderful accomplishments were completely shot to hell by bullshit scandals overhyped by a hysterical opposition made up of insane racist assholes located primarily in the South. It's not a perfect comparison by any means, but give us a couple thousand words in a major magazine and we could totally make it sound credible.