Coolidge: The Best President You Don't Know

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Americans today place enormous pressure on presidents to "do something"...anything, to get the economy going. There was one president, though, Calvin Coolidge, who did "nothing" -- other than shrink government. What happened? America's economy boomed. Is there a lesson to be learned? Award-winning author, historian, and biographer Amity Shlaes thinks so.

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Do more.

That's what Americans demand of their presidents these days. A real president, Democrat or Republican, knows how to use "the office." A real president makes things happen. Or so the conventional wisdom.

But, actually, there is another model. A president can succeed through inaction, by doing as little as possible. One such president was Calvin Coolidge. From the time he took office in 1923 to the time he left in 1929, Coolidge served a philosophy that was simple and powerful: Don't do. Coolidge was our great refrainer.

The leadership style matched his personal style. Coolidge did not waste words. Hence his nickname Silent Cal. He did not grandstand. For these quiet ways, the thirtieth president absorbed much abuse. A Washington socialite, Alice Longworth, said that Coolidge looked like he had been weaned on a pickle.

Coolidge cut a sharp contrast to Alice's father, Theodore Roosevelt, who had served a decade and a half earlier. And what a contrast Coolidge provided with another Roosevelt, Franklin, who came just a few years later.

The Refrainer is worth getting to know because he got the kind of results men of action long for today. Especially economic results. Low unemployment, often well below five percent. Low taxes. Higher wages. Fewer strikes. New technology for the masses -- a new car, or a phone, or a radio. And most remarkable of all, a shrinking federal budget. If you remember just one fact about Coolidge's presidency, let it be this: Coolidge left the federal budget lower than he had found it.

How did Coolidge do it? First he resisted taking unnecessary action himself. Second, he imposed the same discipline on Congress. That wasn't easy. In the early 1920s, the Progressive movement, whose impulse was then and is now always to do something, was on the march. Progressive plans included more aid for agriculture, encouraging unions, increasing taxes, and nationalizing important industries, such as railroads and utilities.

Coolidge blocked the progressives, and thereby blocked their expansion of government. He vetoed farm subsidies twice, even though he personally came from an area of poor farmers, rural Vermont. Coolidge was sympathetic to farmers, but helping them wasn't the government's function.

Coolidge also vetoed aggressive versions of the great entitlement proposal of his day, an entitlement that would have expanded the budget by billions, pensions for veterans. And, he blocked the rise of militant labor unions wherever and whenever he could, a habit he had begun while still governor of Massachusetts.

Coolidge made especially good use of the pocket veto, the ability of the President to veto a bill by simply not returning it to Congress. "It is much more important to kill bad bills," he said, "than to pass good ones." In total, Coolidge vetoed 50 times.

The legislation Coolidge did endorse was designed to meet the same minimalist end: restrain the government. Together with his Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, Coolidge lowered the top tax rate to 25%. Their goal was to shrink the public sector, so that the private sector could expand. And the policy worked.

The final example of the Great Refrainer's philosophy involves political sacrifice. The country liked Coolidge's thrift. The Progressives won 17% of the vote in 1924, but Coolidge won the presidential election with more votes than the Democrats and Progressives combined. So everyone, including the Republican Party, thought Coolidge would surely run a second time in 1928. But he declined. Typical of Coolidge, he thought he had done enough.

Yes, it's possible to criticize Coolidge. As much as he tried to avoid it, Coolidge in the end signed bills he would have preferred not to. And, the president showed a misguided penchant for protectionism, never a sound economic policy. Some suggest that Coolidge was responsible for the stock market crash and the decade-long Depression that followed after he left office. But my own research for my Coolidge biography, Coolidge, suggests that claim is inaccurate. Indeed, researching another book, The Forgotten Man, I found evidence that too much action by Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt put the Great in the phrase Great Depression.

It IS ironic that a man of such personal modesty presided over the era known as the Roaring Twenties. But that was the paradox: Coolidge was a scrooge who begat plenty.

Perhaps the day has come for a new politician to follow the Great Refrainer's guiding rule. Where others do, don't. And if you have to do, do less.

I'm Amity Shlaes of the Coolidge Foundation and The King's College for Prager University.