It would be something of an overstatement to say that Calvin Coolidge exuded charisma. He was unprepossessing and unobtrusive, fading into the background of cabinet meetings during the Harding presidency, and while he was a reasonably good speaker (especially on radio, a medium made for him), he was no spellbinder or “great communicator.” At least in part, his rise to the Presidency may be attributed to luck; having made it to the Vice Presidency, much to the annoyance of party bigwigs, they were plotting to get rid of him in time for Harding’s reelection campaign in 1924, and it was his predecessor’s untimely death that made possible the final step up the ladder to the nation’s highest office. Even so, he was by no means a shoo-in for 1924 and had to move fast and decisively to cement his hold onto power.
Once in office, he was able to win over his party and the nation by his personality and his competence – but it is doubtful that he would have been given the chance even to attain that office if not for a string of lucky breaks. While the obsession with outward appearance, i.e. presidential looks and demeanor, may not have been as much of a factor in the 1920s as it is today, people did remark on how much like a president Harding looked, while no one ever said as much about Coolidge. His charisma, or lack of it, alone would never have carried him to the White House, especially as his message of economy and efficiency in government, although appropriate to the times, was not exactly a shining vision to excite and rally the voters.
To segue to the political scene of today, should he decide to run, will Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels be able to win over the party faithful and the nation on the strength of his “charisma of competence,” as George Will charitably described it?
The answer depends on how clearly the menaces of deficits and debts can be brought home to the average voter. Bruce Bartlett, in an excellent article at The Fiscal Times, points out that
“millions of Americans benefit from government programs without realizing it. Indeed, research by Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler shows that many recipients of government benefits don’t believe that they have received any benefits. (…) No doubt, many of these people will very quickly find out who they are as soon as lobbyists start fighting the proposed cuts.”
He concludes that
“The bottom line is that cutting spending is neither easy, nor simple, nor fast. Republicans may imagine that they are leading a Blitzkrieg against government, but the reality is that it is trench warfare. Every serious budget expert knows this. Republicans have been deluding their allies in the Tea Party movement with promises that they knew they couldn’t keep. Soon, everyone else will know, too.”
Coolidge was the right man for his time; Mitch Daniels may well be the right man with the right message for today. The question is, will it be a message that people are ready to hear?