The president says, in language evoking Warren G. Harding, that by following his policies the nation will "return to normalcy." But it is not so much Harding who comes to mind when watching Ronald Reagan in action, but another Republican predecessor, Herbert Hoover.
At his latest news conference, Reagan's tone, approach, and even words so eerily stirred school-book memories of Hoover that a trip to the library was in order. I can now report, having just finished reading every word uttered by Hoover in his fateful second year as president, that this time, at least, memory is not faulty.
The spirit of Hoover lives, and presides at this present moment.
Horace W. Busby, the political consultant and former Lyndon B. Johnson aide, has been reminding his business clients lately of a vital presidential fact: The second year always is the critical one. That was true of Herbert Hoover, and it certainly will be so for Ronald Reagan.
Hoover, the great humanitarian, one of the most admired men in the world before taking office, and personally one of our most popular presidents when elected, began his second White House year of 1930 facing extraordinary economic problems. He had campaigned by promising the American people that he would lead them into an unprecedented era of prosperity, an age when the poorhouse would be eliminated and citizens could enjoy, as he put it, a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.
Then, six months into his presidency, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. Overnight, public assumptions about the future became gloomy.
Unemployment in 1930 rose to 8.7 percent of the work force--virtually the same as it is in Reagan's America--and there were widespread fears things would get much worse before they got better.
From every side, the president was urged to take stronger action, to change course, to demonstrate he understood the magnitude of the crisis and was flexible in dealing with it. Instead, Hoover dug in his heels and stubbornly refused to change in any way.
To every warning or sign of bad news, he issued soothing words of sunny optimism. Conditions were improving. Give us time and they would get even better. Prosperity was just around the corner. He stressed voluntarism, extolled the principle of self-help, and called on people to help the truly needy. He preached little sermons about the need to have a strong defense but also warned that "if we shall overload the burden of taxation we shall stagnate our economic progress."
As Reagan did last week, he named commissions to study the problem. Hoover called for "the appointment of a body of representative men to study the economic developments during the last 18 months" and also to look back on earlier periods of boom and slump. Reagan, with his "Private Sector Survey on Cost Control in the Federal Government," promises to do what every one of his predecessors in past decades promised--make "an in-depth review of the entire executive branch of government" to "search out waste and inefficiency" so "we can improve management of the executive branch."
Most striking is the way in which these two presidents answered questions about economic problems and doubts about their policies.
In his Thursday news conference, Reagan repeated what are now familiar themes. Since taking office, he says, "we have made progress on many economic fronts" and adds "there are indices already that give reason to believe things are going to get better." He will not change course.NORMALCY 6
Hear, now, Herbert Hoover.
From a press conference, Jan. 21 1930:
"For first time since the stock-exchange crash, the tide of employment is changed in the right direction-- it shows a very distinct increase in employment all over the country during the past 10 days"
From a press conference, Feb. 25:
"I hope the people at home will realize that the government cannot undertake every worthy social and economic, military and naval expansion, or increases in pay to government employes, or new pension systems, or public improvement projects, and will support the members of Congress in their cooperation with the administration in an endeavor to keep the expenditures within the resources of the government."
From a press conference, March 7:
Unemployment "in the main" is centered in only 12 states. "The authorities in the remaining 36 states indicate that only normal seasonal unemployment exists or that any abnormal unemployment is rapidly vanishing, and that there is no particular strain . . . . The situation is very much better now . . . . All the facts indicate that the worst effects of the crash on employment will have been passed during the next 30 to 60 days."
From a Gridiron Club speech, April 26:
"Not long ago, it was demanded that the miseries of unemployment for speculative crashes should be cured by government doles or unemployment insurance, yet today we see them being cured before our eyes by voluntary cooperation of industry with the government . . . . We have inaugurated one of the greatest economic experiments in history on a basis of nationwide cooperation, not of charity."
From a Chamber of Commerce speech, May 1:
"While the crash took place six months ago, I am convinced we have now passed the worst and with continued unity of effort we shall rapidly recover . . . . I believe I can say with assurance that our joint undertaking of government with business has succeeded to a remarkable degree . . . . We have avoided monetary panic and credit stringency. Those dangers are behind us . . . . There has been no significant bank or industrial failure. That danger, too, is safely behind us . . . . Our experience shows that we can produce helpful and wholesome effects in our economic system by voluntary cooperation."
From a press conference, Oct. 24:
"I have a question as to whether we will call a special session of Congress to deal with the unemployment problem. There will be no special session. The sense of voluntary organization in the community has not vanished altogether. The spirit of such service has been strong enough to cope with the problem for the last 11 months, and it is strong enough, I am confident, to serve this occasion in full measure."
Granted, comparisons are invidious. We aren't in a Great Depression. Ronald Reagan, we all hope, will not be another Herbert Hoover. But if he chooses to look back on the experience that befell the Great Humanitarian, the Great Communicator might find another presidential episode from 1930 enlightening.
In April, Hoover was warning the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman the nation faced a budget deficit of some 20 or 30 million dollars and said: "I know you will agree with me that there is cause for real alarm in the situation as we cannot contemplate any such deficit."
In November, he was telling his press conference:
"I have a number of questions as to whether we are likely to have a deficit in this present fiscal year in the budget . . . . We may overrun our income by some comparatively small percentage, but as we have had surpluses over many years, we probably can stand a little deficit over one year without disarranging the stability of the government."
Not to worry. That's old stuff, and history never repeats itself.