Why you should care
Because President Trump may face a similar scenario.
When Republican President Herbert Hoover’s granddaughter was born, he joked privately: “Thank God she doesn’t have to be confirmed by the Senate.” Such was the rift between him and Congress.
This may be surprising, given that the Grand Old Party held majorities in both the House and Senate, and most of the Supreme Court’s justices were selected by Republicans. The GOP held control of the branches of government for all four years of Hoover’s term — just like it will do during President-elect Donald Trump’s initial time in office. And yet, Hoover suffered from a government that was factious, dismissive and slow to move.
Born in 1874, Hoover wasn’t a typical politician, or a typical Republican. His experience was not won by working up the political ladder. Instead, he began as a mining engineer after graduating from Stanford. He went abroad, eventually leading a mine in Australia and advising another in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Later, he based himself in England, where he freelanced as an international mining engineer and financier.
“They find him inept. He finds them narrowly self-interested. So you have a gap there that handicaps Hoover.”
Hoover was a multimillionaire by today’s standards, and during World War I Hoover returned to the United States to live, according to historian and Hoover expert George Nash. “Hoover was a believer in American exceptionalism. The more he lived abroad and could compare America to other societies, the more he believed America’s great ideal was equality of opportunity,” Nash says. Hoover organized the relief effort for occupied Belgium and organized the American home front, earning himself a position in President Harding’s and President Coolidge’s cabinets as secretary of commerce. Without ever holding elected office, he was nominated and then elected president in 1928, winning 58 percent of the popular vote.
Hoover took office with a reputation for efficiency and humanitarian work, but to complicate matters, a lot of conservatives thought he was too pushy. They didn’t see him as a party loyalist, and he didn’t care much for career politicians. The conservative loyalists who supported Coolidge hated Hoover, and the progressive Republicans (in name only) thought he was too moderate. In his first year in office, even though his party led, Hoover was cautious and self-conscious of his vulnerability with party professionals. The party was split. “There’s this clash. They find him inept. He finds them narrowly self-interested. So you have a gap there that handicaps Hoover,” Nash says.
Hoover called a special session of congress to solve the farming recession in 1929, as he’d promised in his campaign. But lawmakers broke ranks and filled the legislation with local interests until it was so bloated that it hardly resembled cohesive policy. “It was a classic example of his inability to work with Congress,” historian and University of Kentucky professor David Hamilton says. Hoover was not happy, Nash says, pointing to how hard it was for him to reject it when his party was in control of both houses and had come up with the legislation. “It’d be hard for the president after all these months of work to veto it,” Nash adds. So Hoover signed it, and Congress repaid him by rejecting one of his Supreme Court nominations and ignoring his message to reform the banks and balance the budget. “The entire 71st Congress had proven a battle of wills,” Glen Jeansonne wrote in The Life of Herbert Hoover: Fighting Quaker, 1928–1933.
Hoover was not the only president to have his party controlling Congress while still facing pushback. Democratic President Jimmy Carter dealt with similar issues. He had large majorities in the Senate and House and a fairly even Supreme Court (with four Democrats). But Carter had poor relations with both the Senate and the House from day one, “partly because of his political inexperience, partly the changing nature of the House of Representatives as power was becoming more decentralized,” Hamilton says, noting how “congressmen had fewer ties to the national party.” With fractures and fragmentation, Carter had trouble pushing through his agenda, and Speaker Tip O’Neill — also a Democrat — famously lost his temper when Carter’s staff refused to answer his calls in a timely manner.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Hoover faced enormous strain. A year later, America’s most famous columnist and political pundit, Walter Lippmann, wrote in Harper’s Magazine about “the peculiar weakness of Mr. Hoover.” By 1932, the country was ready for change and elected Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a landslide. The Republican majority fell apart, Democrats took the House and Republicans precariously held on to the Senate, still losing six seats. And poor Hoover, Hamilton says, “was never so happy as when Congress [with its Republican majority] was out of season.”