Action is something Americans of both parties demand of their presidents these days. This is natural for Democrats, whose heritage is all action, starting with Franklin Roosevelt and his Hundred Days. But Republicans like energy and a big executive as well. Over the course of the campaign this past year, any number of political stars, including Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, argued that only an energetic candidate would be up to the job of managing the U.S. fiscal crisis. Mitt Romney worked hard to let voters know his party could beat the Democrats in the legislative arena. He swore up and down that, à la Roosevelt, he would get off to a running start, sending five bills to Congress and signing five executive orders on his first day in the Oval Office.
The Grand Old Party’s abiding affection for a “bigger and better” presidency isn’t entirely logical. After all, the Obama presidency commenced with an effort to reenact the Hundred Days. Yet President Obama’s first-term economic performance itself was not “big” but mediocre, tiny even. Perhaps Republicans should consider whether inaction on the part of the White House can be desirable. Perhaps, led by Republicans, the United States could benefit from trying out an unfashionable idea: the small presidency.
Evidence from a near-forgotten period, the early 1920s, instructs us. In those days the country was suffering economic turmoil similar to our own. Because of a crisis — World War I — the government had intruded in business and financial markets in unprecedented fashion, nationalizing the railroads, shutting down the stock market, and entering the debt market with war bonds.
Central bankers warned that the only reason the government’s large debt hadn’t set off a fiscal apocalypse was that interest rates had not yet commenced what they deemed an inevitable rise. Angry veterans, many of them disabled, were having trouble finding jobs, and many people assumed a new federal entitlement, veteran pensions, would be established within the year. A recent and active president, Theodore Roosevelt, had taught the nation that the Oval Office was a “bully pulpit.”
But this was not the view of the two candidates on the 1920 Republican ticket, Warren Harding of Ohio and Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts. The pair coolly campaigned on the humdrum, underwhelming motto of “normalcy,” meaning a reduction in uncertainty. The White House was no bully pulpit; the Republican elephant should not be an elephant in a china shop. After winning the presidency, Harding continued to endorse inaction. “No altered system will work a miracle,” Harding told the crowds at his March 1921 inauguration. “Any wild experiment will only add to the confusion. Our best assurance lies in efficient administration of the proven system.” Harding wanted to ensure that government did less so that commerce might enjoy free range. He pushed for and got tax cuts for businesses hindered by large levies, and he readied a plan to privatize naval oil reserves.
Harding also provided displays of austerity. He canceled an inaugural ball that was to be held at the public’s expense, and even let his wife Florence know she would not need a ball gown. He backed and signed a budget law that helped the executive curtail congressional spending. And he crafted a compromise with veterans that enabled the government to avoid granting the expected veteran pensions: It would provide hospitals, but not cash, for vets.
But despite these measures, Harding was not really cut out to be a small president. His personality was big, and he tended to do things in a big way. The inconsistency between the man and his announced intentions was evident even on the night of the inauguration: The official ball was indeed canceled, but the Hardings put on finery and partied at an opulent private ball held by the owner of the Washington Post, Edward McLean, and his wife, Evalyn.
Harding’s friends loved him, and he loved them back — too much. More than once he appointed old cronies to office, regardless of their merits. To head the Veterans Bureau, the product of his compromise with the vets, Harding tapped his old acquaintance Charles Forbes. An Ohio buddy, Harry Daugherty, got the attorney general’s post.
Even when it came to legislating smaller government, Harding tended to favor a big style, demanding extra sessions of Congress to implement his agenda.
Soon it all went wrong for Harding. The president’s demand for special legislative sessions backfired, because it gave lawmakers more time to introduce legislation of their own, and therefore gave Harding more projects to battle. His exuberant affection for his former colleagues in the Senate made it especially difficult for him to oppose their legislation, and in the end he vetoed only six bills. The buddies he appointed to high office routinely undermined his case for small government.