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Lessons For Obama From Silent Cal

Frugal, laconic Calvin Coolidge instinctively applied his conservative principles. The result was just what we need today: low debt and rising prosperity.

By From the November 2011 issue

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When President Obama demanded in September that "millionaires and billionaires" "pay their fair share," he laid a claim to justice, albeit justice wrongly understood. America's tax code is unjust, he argued--not because everyone doesn't pay the same rate, but because the "rich" don't pay enough in federal taxes. Dropping his g's, stomping his feet, seducing crowds, he was in full campaign mode. "If you love me, then you gotta help me pass this bill," he told a swooning crowd. The campaigner-in-chief was back, still wanting to "spread the wealth around," insisting that taxes must be raised. It was all about "living within our means."

But if Obama is serious about living within our means, he would do well to study President Calvin Coolidge--the last Republican president to pay down the debt while simultaneously growing the economy. There's never been a better time than now for a return to the Coolidge perspective. Often wrongly dismissed as a "do-nothing" executive by New Deal activists, Coolidge showed what true conservatism could produce. He brought Washington's fiscal house into order. He balanced budgets, cut spending, slashed taxes, and helped expand the economy to produce prosperity. In other words, exactly what we need today.

Unfortunately, Obama's philosophy of government couldn't be further from Coolidge's. "The wisest and soundest method of solving our tax problem is through economy [spending restraints]," Coolidge said in his inaugural address in 1925. His concept of our republic differed markedly from Obama's. "The collection of any taxes which are not absolutely required," he argued, "which do not beyond reasonable doubt contribute to the public welfare, is only a species of legalized larceny. Under this Republic the rewards of industry belong to those who earn them. Americans, he reminded us, "are politically free people and must be an economically free people." But with President Obama, America has become less economically free, falling in the indexes of economic freedom.

This is chiefly because of the climate of economic uncertainty his policies create. In 2009, President Obama rightly opposed raising taxes in the jaws of a recession. Now, confusingly, he insists on raising them despite the economy's continuing contraction. Obviously he hasn't learned that taxes can't solve Washington's fiscal woes, because to tax is to destroy the dynamic sources of our prosperity.

Coolidge knew this well, counseling his fellow citizens against the class warfare underlying Obama's economic philosophy: "We cannot finance the country, we cannot improve social conditions, through any system of injustice, even if we attempt to inflict it upon the rich. Those who suffer the most harm will be the poor." And the poor have suffered dearly under President Obama: The number of Americans living in poverty increased again in 2010, rising for the fourth year in a row. Now, one in six Americans lives below the poverty line.

Americans instinctively dislike class warfare, Coolidge argued, because they "believe in prosperity. It is absurd to suppose that [Americans are] envious of those who are already prosperous." Prudence and the lessons of history, Coolidge believed, told us "the wise and correct course" was "not to destroy those who have already secured success but to create conditions under which everyone will have a better chance to be successful."

COOLIDGE'S APPROACH really was one of seeking the proper balance. Government and business each "ought to be sovereign in its own sphere," he told the Chamber of Commerce of New York State in November 1925. "When government comes unduly under the influence of business, the tendency is to develop an administration which closes the door of opportunity; becomes narrow and selfish in its outlook, and results in an oligarchy." On the other hand, "[w]hen government enters the field of business with its great resources, it has a tendency to extravagance and inefficiency, but, having the power to crush all competitors, likewise closes the door of opportunity and results in monopoly."

With his belief in big government, Obama insists that he remains focused on creating jobs. Coolidge however, knew that government could not "create jobs" directly. Job creation was the province of private enterprise. "If business can be let alone and assured of reasonable freedom from governmental interference and increased taxes," the retired Coolidge later wrote during the Depression as a columnist, "that will do more than all kinds of legislation to relieve depression.…It will be the part of wisdom to give business a free hand to supply its own remedies."

Coolidge achieved as much as he did because he believed so deeply in "economy," meaning frugality. He ranked it third, after only "order and liberty," as "one of the highest essentials of a free government." He put it simply: "I favor the policy of economy, not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people." A dollar saved was a dollar the people could spend themselves, on their own betterment.

Unlike other politicians who espoused a phony fiscal conservatism even then, Coolidge worked to make his principles policy. And he believed wholeheartedly in budgets, confessing a "sort of obsession" to make the numbers come out right. "I regard a good budget as among the noblest monuments of virtue," he proclaimed in 1924. Compare that with President Obama's last budget, a monument to profligacy that failed to attract a single vote in the Senate.

Obama prefers to ramp up the rhetoric, demonizing "fat cats" and "millionaires and billionaires." In one of his two books about himself, he described his time in corporate America as a period "behind enemy lines." Coolidge, by contrast, once remarked that business capital is "the chief material minister to the general character of all mankind." He famously believed that "the chief business of America is business," but business and the wealth it produced were only a means, not an end.

By leaving business alone, Coolidge oversaw one of the lowest unemployment rates in American history. By keeping businesses free from excessive taxes, he protected consumers from having to pay for them with higher prices. "High taxes mean high prices," Coolidge maintained. But he also added a moral dimension: "I am opposed to extremely high rates, because they produce little or no revenue, because they are bad for the country, and finally, because they are wrong."

"Debt reduction is tax reduction," as he often put it. The corollary was also true. Tax reduction was debt reduction. "I want taxes to be less," he said, "that the people may have more." By lowering taxes, Coolidge actually produced humanitarian results. Here, even progressives might find something to admire. Those making less than $5,000 a year paid 15.4 percent of total income taxes in 1920, but only .4 percent in 1929. Those who earned more than $100,000 paid 65.2 percent, up from 29.9 percent over that same period. Coolidge got more revenue, too. The economic expansion led to a 28 percent increase in the proportion of the budget paid by federal income taxes. By 1927, 98 percent of Americans paid no income tax at all.

THESE SUCCESSES were possible not only because of Coolidge's grounding in common-sense economics and his belief in limited government, but because he surrounded himself with men of accomplishment, not agenda. There were major businessmen and real statesmen in his cabinet. Among them was Andrew Mellon, his (and Harding's and Hoover's) Treasury Secretary. A financial wizard, Mellon had such genius and force of personality that it was said "three Presidents served under him." Another of Coolidge's outstanding appointees was Vice President Charles Dawes, who had been the nation's first director of the Bureau of the Budget in the Harding administration. Dawes, who had devised a plan to restore post-World War I Germany and stabilize its economy, would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925.

Like many conservatives today, Coolidge was popular with the man in the street but unpopular in the Ivory Tower and in Washington. Then as now, the educated class harbored contempt for the philosophic underpinnings of our republic and for those who most seriously defended them. When attacks on Coolidge's philosophy failed, his critics simply got personal. Socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, scorned Coolidge as having been "weaned on a pickle." He was the butt of jokes and vicious rumors. Coolidge "slept more than any other President, whether by day or by night. Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored," wrote H. L. Mencken in 1933. When told of Coolidge's death, Dorothy Parker, the popular satirist, is said to have quipped, "How could they tell?"

More recently, author William L. Shirer recalled "the incredible smugness and emptiness of the Calvin Coolidge era." He was not alone in such cheap shots. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. castigated Coolidge for being too beholden to business and pictured him as a boorish philistine.

To today's left, Coolidge was a bogeyman. The Huffington Post quoted an unnamed Washington Democrat who sought to tie the Tea Party to Coolidge. Mike Lux, a left-wing political consultant, linked him to the Paul Ryan budget: "[Republicans] want to take us back to the era of Calvin Coolidge, when the advances of the last 80 years simply didn't exist," Lux wrote on the Huffington Post.

On the other hand, many on the right long for a return to Coolidge's principles. Peggy Noonan, among others, saw Coolidge in Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana. George Will calls him "the last president with a proper sense of his office's constitutional proportions." Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, who served as the honorary co-chair of Rick Perry's recent prayer event, predicted a President Perry "would be the most conservative president since Calvin Coolidge."

Predictably, what Land hopes for, Andrew Romano of Newsweek fears. "Perry…would do more to limit the power of federal government -- or at least attempt to do more--than any president since Calvin Coolidge," Romano warned after reading an interview Perry did with his magazine last fall. But if Perry wants to claim the Coolidge mantle, he won't be alone. Sarah Palin's book America by Heart brims with favorable references to the 30th president. And Michele Bachmann extolled Coolidge's economic policies on the House floor in 2009.

Unlike George W. Bush, Coolidge believed that sometimes the government can't do much at all to mend the people's woes. In fact, the trick often is to do nothing, which is what Coolidge did by vetoing a farm subsidy bill--the McNary-Haugen bill--in 1927 and again in 1928. "Farmers have never made much money. I don't believe we can do much about it," he explained. Coolidge's was a government of limits because he recognized there are limits to what government can do. "It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones," he rightly noted.

COOLIDGE'S VIEW OF government couldn't be more different from President Obama's. He believed in the "right of the individual to possess, enjoy, and control the dollar which he earns." Liberty "would be…a mockery unless it secured to the individual the rewards of his own effort and industry." President Obama doesn't believe in such a right. "I do think at a certain point you've made enough money," he preached. "We don't want to stop [entrepreneurs] from fulfilling their responsibility to help grow our economy."

Coolidge would never have said such a thing, because he understood what Obama does not, that personality matters a lot to policy. And he was a master of what one admirer called "brilliant flashes of silence." "No man ever listened himself out of a job," Coolidge noted on one occasion. Another time he declared, "I don't recall any candidate for president that ever injured himself very much by not talking." And then there was this: "They can't hang you for what you don't say."

He was, in fact, a painfully shy man. When it came to his political thought, he was seeped in the classics--he translated Dante on his honeymoon--and the Founding Fathers. He genuinely believed in the Declaration of Independence's teaching that all men were created equal, and he fought for it not only by keeping government limited, but by working to criminalize lynching and by extending the promise of citizenship to every Native American.

The last president to write most of his own speeches, Coolidge spoke so eloquently on so many subjects that it is a shame that few people read him today. Indeed, "Silent Cal" authored three collections of speeches and an autobiography. He wrote a daily, post-presidential syndicated column that numbered more than 300 pieces. He gave well over 500 press conferences during his five and half years as president. All of these well-attended chats were on background; Coolidge would let the press quote a serious administration official, but never him directly. "The words of the President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately," he counseled in his Autobiography.

Obama, by comparison, uses words so indiscriminately that it seems hardly a day goes by when he doesn't deliver a major speech. These are described as major because, in Obama's view, nothing he does is minor. His favorite word is "unprecedented," which he uses most about himself. Obama has suggested in some remarks that he fancies himself a new Lincoln, a political messiah, another "tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer." Invoking Lincoln when he announced for president, Obama called on his fellow Americans to "gather…to transform a nation." The question is toward what ends that transformation is intended.

For Obama, Lincoln is personal, but for Coolidge, Lincoln was political. Coolidge, too, was thought to be Lincoln's "heir," because he spoke so frequently of Lincoln's political thought, often reverently. He argued that Lincoln was a great man because he "made the same appeal to his countrymen which all great men have made…it came not from his belief in their weakness but in their strength." Lincoln's "great achievement consisted in bringing the different elements of his country into a more truly moral relationship."

But Coolidge, unlike Obama, never gave the impression he was the chosen one. He believed that it was the people who decided who was great. Obama, on the other hand, compared himself to Moses. Electing him would be the "moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal," he said during his campaign.

COOLIDGE KNEW WELL the danger of letting politics go to the head. "Nine-tenths of [the visitors to the White House] want something they ought not to have," he held. He had a simple solution for dealing with these visitors: "If you keep dead-still they will run down in three or four minutes." President Obama, who fetes Andy Stern of the SEIU and other union leaders, gives such importunate visitors everything they want.

He was also determined to avoid being taken in by flatterers. "It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion," he reflected. "They are surrounded by worshippers….They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation, which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming arrogant or careless." President Obama is rightly denounced for being both, and it has something to do with the self-delusion fostered by the adulation he has received during his presidency, his 2008 campaign, and long before.

Conservatives should work toward nothing less than what Harding and Coolidge vowed in 1920--"a return to normalcy," by which they meant a turn away from "things …go[ing] to hell in a handbasket," as they had during the Wilson years. What Harding promised, Coolidge delivered. On the eve of the 2008 election, Obama promised to "fundamentally transform" America. He delivered, too, but with "hope and change" that have left us with a changed credit rating. The task now is to return to normalcy once more, before it's too late.

It won't be easy. But as Coolidge wrote: "It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. We draw our Presidents from the people. I came from them. I wish to be one of them again." In 1928 he announced "I do not choose to run," eschewed a likely election victory, and retired to Northampton, Massachusetts. Come 2012, we will have a chance to help Obama resemble Coolidge and quietly return to private life.

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About the Author

Charles C. Johnson is a writer based in Los Angeles and author of a forthcoming biography of Calvin Coolidge.