A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

John Schaaf: Just like Hoover and Carter, Trump faces big challenges in seeking re-election


Mark Twain supposedly said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

That truism could apply to this year’s Presidential election, which will not exactly replicate any previous election, but certainly resembles the campaigns of 1932 and 1980 by featuring a President leaning into difficult headwinds.

With COVID-19 spreading across the nation, efforts to defeat the virus have been largely unsuccessful, creating a concerned and agitated public.

As he seeks re-election, President Donald Trump confronts the challenge of convincing voters they can trust him to guide the nation through the pandemic to health and prosperity.

Similarly, after the 1929 stock market crash, President Herbert Hoover faced a challenge as he watched businesses collapse, unemployment rise to nearly 25 percent, and poverty cause hundreds of thousands of Americans to lose their homes and farms. Many of the homeless moved to shanty towns called “Hoovervilles”, and the President was seen as ineffective.

John Shaaf

Hoover supported a limited federal government and thought the solution to the economic crisis was at the local level. In 1932, a large majority of voters believed he failed to rise to the challenge, and he lost his re-election bid when he carried only six states.

Forty-seven years later, in November 1979, Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage and holding them throughout 1980 while the Presidential campaign unfolded.

Although President Jimmy Carter tried to resolve the hostage crisis by diplomatic and military means, he was unsuccessful. He was also dealing with double-digit inflation and 7.5 percent unemployment, problems with no immediate solutions. Carter looked ineffective, and like Hoover, Carter lost by a large margin and carried only six states.

In both 1932 and 1980, the U.S. was bedeviled by problems which were not necessarily the fault of the incumbent President, but voters overwhelmingly decided the nation needed new leadership.

COVID-19 and its destructive impact on the U.S. economy could have a similar impact on the 2020 election. The country is averaging over 60,000 new cases a day, and virus concerns have decimated businesses and led to 36 million people filing unemployment claims. Unless the pandemic is brought under control, the economy cannot fully recover.

Six months ago, President Trump was emphasizing a strong economy as the cornerstone of his re-election. Without that issue, he hasn’t developed an alternative message to rally voters around his candidacy.

In a recent Fox News interview, Trump was asked to describe how he wants his presidency to be remembered – a perfect chance to tout his accomplishments and goals for a second term. Instead, he wasted the opportunity by attacking the “thieves and crooks” who led the law enforcement effort to investigate Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign.

With about 90 days until the election, the President risks looking ineffective like Hoover and Carter, especially if he can’t bring order to some of the current chaos.

In the White House, policy people are arguing with the medical experts about how to fight COVID-19, while defending against attacks from Republican members of Congress outraged by the President’s failure to act on reports that Russia paid bounties to Afghans to kill American troops.

Meanwhile, the President’s lawyers are dealing with a Supreme Court ruling upholding a subpoena for the President’s financial records, and his political people are trying to counter critical books by the President’s niece, Dr. Mary Trump, and by former national security adviser John Bolton.

They’re also lashing out at Republicans who are opposing their party’s President. Two well-funded groups – The Lincoln Project, led by George Conway, husband of Presidential aide Kellyanne Conway, and Republican Voters Against Trump – are working in swing states to create “permission” for Trump voters to back former Vice President Joe Biden by running ads featuring former Trump voters explaining why they now oppose the President.

Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich announced he would speak at the Democrats’ convention in support of Biden, becoming the latest defection from the Republican ranks, following others including former President George W. Bush and Sen. Mitt Romney. Even Sen. Mitch McConnell appears to want some daylight between himself and the President.

In a campaign year that resembles 1932 and 1980, a President who’s optimistic about re-election might be compared to the man who fell from the top of a 20-story building, and said to himself as he passed each floor on the way down: “I’m all right so far. I’m all right so far.”

John Schaaf of Georgetown is a retired attorney. His new book, “The Hidden History of Kentucky Political Scandals,” will be released in August and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com.


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