Montana State University

'It was the best of times ... worst of times:' Presidential historian analyzes election

December 5, 2008 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News

Presidential scholar Joan Hoff, a Research Professor of History at MSU, said President-elect Obama will have to work quickly to solve the current financial crisis if he is to retain his popularity and stand a chance for re-election in four years. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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President-elect Barrack Obama will have to work quickly to at least give the impression he can solve the current financial crisis if he is to retain his popularity and stand a chance for re-election in four years, says one of the country's most recognized presidential scholars.

"Never before have we had a president coming in facing two wars, the collapse of a financial system and a country on the brink of decline in its great nation status," said Joan Hoff, retired director of the former Center for the Study of the Presidency in New York City and a Research Professor of History at Montana State University. "It is totally unprecedented."

Hoff, a Butte native who lives part time in both Big Sky and New York City, is the author of 16 books -- four on the presidency. Her most recent, "Faustian Diplomacy: From Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush," published this year by Cambridge University Press, has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Hoff said she believes that the most recent U.S. presidential election was not only the most important election in her lifetime, it was the most unique election in the country's history for at least two reasons.

"Number one was the question of race," Hoff said. "But also, we as a country are reluctant to vote for a president who does not try to hide his intellect. The last one before Obama was Woodrow Wilson. If you combine these two factors, it makes it a hugely unique vote."

In fact, Hoff speculates that despite his intellectual and rhetorical gifts, Obama would not have been elected had he not followed President George W. Bush, whom she believes history will likely recognize as one of the country's most unpopular and unsuccessful presidents.

"The country is on a seismic brink," Hoff said. "As foreign observers are now saying that all the time, we are on a downward slope in terms of economic footing and our position of power in the world. We are at the tipping point. And, if that is the case, any president will have to deal calmly and intellectually with our declining economic and diplomatic power in the world."

Hoff said she thinks it is up for grabs whether Obama will be able to return the U.S. to the preeminent world power that it has enjoyed for decades. Hoff said Obama's most pressing issue will be to convince the average American citizen that he is solving his or her financial crisis, even if true progress will take more than four years.

"He has to be like Franklin Delano Roosevelt," Hoff said. "FDR gave Americans the impression that he was solving the Depression. It was the second world war that brought the country out of the Depression."

While Hoff paints a dire picture of the current economic and military situation, she also sees much to be optimistic about in the recent election.

"Obama has become an international phenomenon like no other candidate has," Hoff said. "It is said that as the U.S. goes, so goes the world. And people around the world were interested in what was happening in our election. There is the perception that Obama could bring change not only to the U.S. but also to the world."

Hoff said she has also not seen before this much enthusiasm for the executive branch of government, which she has studied for more than four decades. Not even the election of John F. Kennedy excited as many diverse groups as this one, she said.

"I was in New York City during the election and it was fun to be there," Hoff said. "People poured out into the streets and closed many of them off when it was announced that Obama had won. In addition, large crowds unprecedented in size gathered to watch the results in Times Square, Columbus Circle and Rockefeller Center."

Hoff said despite the majority popular vote for Obama, his election was not a landslide.

"To be classified as a landslide, a candidate has to win at least 400 electoral votes, and preferably more than 500," she said. "So Obama's 365 (current projections) was definitely was not a landslide, but it was a good mandate. Historians may, as they have with Truman and the Korean War, positively re-evaluate his Middle Eastern foreign policy if in 20 years or so it appears more successful than it does now. "

Hoff said that speaking of popularity, or lack of it, she doubts whether history will be kind to Bush and his historic unpopularity since he is leaving behind two unresolved wars and a major recession.

"There hasn't been a president who has gone out of office blamed for economic collapse who could revive his reputation," Hoff said. "Bush will not be able to escape blame for the economic crash that came in September."

She likewise thinks that while there have been presidents who have gone out of office under a cloud who have rehabilitated their reputation with post-presidential good works, (examples include Hoover, Carter and even the impeached Clinton) there has to be a desire to recognize the need to rebuild a reputation. And Hoff said Bush has yet to indicate that he has done anything that requires repair or rehabilitation.

Since the campaign, Hoff has been sought out and quoted by newspapers around the world for her perspectives on the election. She says that no matter what happens, the first months of Obama's term should make for interesting conversation in her class on the modern presidency that she will teach in spring semester at MSU.

"This election was really something to experience," Hoff said. "Obama will have to utilize his optimism and popularity to make changes following a failed presidency of unprecedented proportions. No previous president-elect has inherited two wars and a major recession. The situation is depressing, but it was such an upbeat election that I can't be depressed. Obama has raised our expectations in a time of great need and I wish him well in trying to fulfill them."

Joan Hoff, (406) 994-4395,