The Trouble With Tycoons In The White House

Like Hoover before him, the same traits that propelled Trump to the presidency now limit his ability to govern effectively.

It is unfair to compare Herbert Hoover to Donald Trump. Hoover had enormous respect for the office of the president and for the Constitution of the United States. He conducted himself throughout his term in the White House with dignity and restraint, worked harder than any chief executive before him, and left with one of the cleanest records of any of its inhabitants. He was in these regards an anti-Trump, yet it has to be admitted that in some ways he anticipates and explains Trump’s failures as chief executive.

Hoover and Trump are the only modern business magnates to serve as president (George W. does not quite make par), and they are the only two men since 1900 apart from Eisenhower to have won the White House in their first attempt at elected office. This combination of moguldom and political naïveté was helpful to both Hoover and Trump in pursuit of power. They were considered by voters suspicious of career politicians to be above the partisan fray, and they were given high marks for their perceived ability to get things done in the real world. But these supposed virtues were worthless when they actually met the presidency.

Prior to public life, Hoover was a millionaire mining tycoon accustomed to pursuing his own well-defined objectives at the head of a tightly-controlled enterprise comprised of hand-picked personnel. As a trained engineer and a representative of America’s new managerial elite, he brought a scientific, data-driven approach to problem solving and assessed everything that confronted him from the point of view of production efficiencies and profit margins. He had the usual businessman’s disdain for politics, thinking it an inexpert, clubby game played by self-serving party bosses who cared more for popularity and pork-barreling than for optimal managerial outcomes. The theater of retail politics he considered foolish and inherently dishonest, a notion that permitted him to make a principle of having no skill at it. That he ascended to the presidency partly on the strength of an outsized media profile and without benefit of the usual Republican machinery duped him into thinking that he had little need of his party and its congressional potentates. He had never adequately studied the maelstrom of competing interests and independent power bases on Capitol Hill and he was lulled into complacency about the legislative challenges ahead of him.

[Hoover] was forever contrasting his high-minded, knowledgeable, and dispassionate approach to public service with that of noisy, vote-grubbing, lobby-haunting Congressmen.

Sworn in as president in 1929, Hoover worked with a cabinet picked in his own image, men with professional degrees, strong on real-world competence and light on political practice. He was determined to professionalize Washington politics ― his version of “drain the swamp” ― by which he meant close attention to administrative detail, a heavy reliance on outside experts, and a minimum of public performance and personal disclosure. He acknowledged that some of his predecessors had been charismatic and combative in their relations with Congress, and he admitted that it was “much less heroic for the president to cooperate than to carry the banner of the people against the bastions of Congress,” but he insisted more could be accomplished by respecting the division of powers, giving legislators space, and trusting them to do the right thing.

Hoover was so sincere and determined in his efforts to rise above partisan politics that it probably never occurred to him how injurious his anti-political lectures were to fellow Republicans. He was forever contrasting his high-minded, knowledgeable, and dispassionate approach to public service with that of noisy, vote-grubbing, lobby-haunting Congressmen, men “prolific with drama and the headlines,” men possessed of “reckless ambition,” “demagogic folly,” and “vainglory,” men who lived for “the hustings.” He seems not to have been entirely conscious of the fact that his answer to almost every problem, whether Prohibition, the tariff, or the economy, was to take the politics out of it and hand it over to the experts or commissions of impartial thinkers he considered to be free of political toxins. He held literally hundreds of expert conferences, all of them deliberate if unwitting efforts to bypass Congress and treat problems of government in the efficient, evidence-based manner he believed necessary in an increasingly complex and fast-changing world.

Hoover’s amateurish misapprehension of his job and his failure to constructively engage with Congress cost him the first half of his term. He delegated leadership of what would become the infamous Smoot-Hawley tariff to a coterie of ineffectual Republican Congressional leaders who were never entirely clear on what his administration wanted from tariff reform. Watching from the sidelines, Hoover was surprised by their unwillingness to do his vague bidding, and baffled by the myriad motives, noble or otherwise, of the political animals on the Hill. At the end of the day, said one astonished Republican, “he didn’t know where the votes came from.” 

Hoover’s Congressional colleagues quickly learned to reciprocate his seeming indifference to them. They ran away with the tariff issue, aggressively pushing their pet issues, or the narrow priorities of their constituents, and log-rolling to get them addressed. Heedless to the administration’s minimal guidance, they fought in their chambers and in headlines, formed and re-formed alliances, and ― after eating up a year of precious legislative time ― dumped on Hoover’s lap a stinking mess nothing like what he had intended. A president determined to take the politics out of tariffs was in the end steamrolled by politicians and exposed as a weak legislative manager with no real control over his party.

He is falling back on the habits of threats, ultimatums, and bullying that worked for him in the business world

Now we have Trump, another businessman accustomed to calling all the shots, another leader with loose ties to his party’s establishment and a general contempt for career politicians, struggling in a similar manner with his legislative agenda despite Republican majorities in both houses (Hoover, incidentally, was the last president so favored). He does not share Hoover’s distaste for the clamor and drama of politics ― rather, he seems to want it all to himself ― but his impulse to buck the system is the same.

Right out of the gate, Trump signed sheaves of executive orders, establishing his self-centered style. He asked Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, a core commitment of his campaign, but aside from calling Obamacare a “disaster” he had little to say on how an alternative might work. When Republicans cooked up what proved to be an unpopular replacement bill, the White House failed to guide discussion around the bill and create a sense of urgency around the president’s priorities. Rather than putting himself on the line and working towards a solution, he carped at it and appealed in tweets and rallies (his version of expert committees) to exert the influence he could not muster himself. The initiative went nowhere.

Trump has since spent the summer not talking to the Republican congressional leadership, mocking Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for his “failure” to deliver Obamacare, excoriating the Republican senators who voted against their party, calling Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake “toxic” and weak on borders, and encouraging nomination challenges to Flake and other Republican incumbents. He is falling back on the habits of threats, ultimatums, and bullying that worked for him in the business world rather than adapting to the clenched-teeth collegiality that prevails in Congress, where men and women with strong differences nevertheless understand that they need one another to get anything done. He has exacerbated rather than healed divisions in the party as it prepares to deliver on tax reform, another major election promise. McConnell’s recent private comment, as reported by the New York Times, that Trump is unwilling to learn the basics of governing sound much like the old charge that Hoover “did not know where the votes come from.”

Hoover learned from his mistakes, accepted the realities Congressional politics, and played by the Hill’s rules in the second half of his term. Despite his party’s effective loss of control of both chambers in the 1930 mid-term elections, he stooped to barter with Congress and accommodated it sufficiently to pass a suite of bills as consequential as any since Woodrow Wilson’s first term. It remains to be seen whether Trump can grow on the job, but it has been fascinating to see him reach out to Democrats lately. Hoover found it easier to work with Democrats than Republicans, perhaps because their negotiations were uncomplicated by expectations of fraternity, loyalty, and mutuality. It may be that for presidents unaccustomed to team play, it is easier to forgive and contract with enemies than with friends.

The impulse to bypass politics-as-usual is understandable. Congress has always been a circus and a souk, dealing with it has always been messy, tiresome, and to some extent self-defeating, and Hoover and Trump are scarcely the only leaders to have suspected that their jobs would be easier without it. But that notion does seem to root deepest in businessmen accustomed to command-and-control operating environments, and it interferes with their success. A president either makes a personal investment in the success of his legislative agenda and finds a way to work with Congress or he fails to produce legislation. Efforts to bypass the legislative branch, to talk around it or to talk over it, will always be doomed to failure.

Kenneth Whyte is the author of the forthcoming “Hoover: An Extraordinary Life In Extraordinary Times.”