Inactive presidents

It’s always fascinating to see, courtesy of WordPress, the search terms that lead people to this site. Today, I note that someone typed in “why were the 1920s presidents considered so inactive?” which led her or him to this blog.

I only have the briefest of moments to begin commenting on this question today and hope to flesh it out a little more in the near future. The charge of “inactivity”, leveled against any president, is usually based on a very expansive view of the role of the presidency. Presidents, in this view, should be the movers and shapers of the national agenda in a proactive way.

It should be noted that this expanded view of the powers of the presidency goes far beyond what the Constitution’s framers had in mind. The last thing they intended for the presidency to be was a carbon copy of the British monarchy, and thus they circumscribed a very limited set of powers and competencies for the “chief magistrate.”

Harding was elected by a landslide in 1920 on a platform of “normalcy” which he rightly understood as a mandate to get the government off the backs of the people and not burden them with any more progressive schemes. Coolidge followed that policy, and saw it as his mandate to stand, as William F. Buckley later said in a different context, athwart history yelling “Stop!”

In 1926, Walter Lippmann described Coolidge as having mastered the “technique of anti-propaganda” by reducing public interest in government, by deflating enthusiasm for ambitious programs, projects, and political dreams coming from Washington. The Democrats and Progressives of his time worked hard to whip up passions for policies, programs, for politics generally—but Coolidge managed to take the wind out of those schemes:

“Mr. Coolidge’s genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point. It is far from being an indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity which keeps Mr. Coolidge occupied constantly. Nobody has ever worked harder at inactivity, with such force of character, with such unremitting attention to detail, with such conscientious devotion to the task. Inactivity is a political philosophy and a party program with Mr. Coolidge, and nobody should mistake his unflinching adherence to it for the soft and easy desire to let things slide. Mr. Coolidge’s inactivity is not merely the absence of activity. It is on the contrary a steady application to the task of neutralizing and thwarting political activity wherever there are signs of life.”

Progressives of his day and historians of today may decry and belittle Coolidge’s penchant for inactivity, but it gave the country a much-needed respite between the progressive experiments unleashed by presidents Wilson and FDR, respectively. It is more than a little ironic that anyone aiming to emulate Coolidge today would need to do a lot more than merely being stubbornly inactive – he (or she) would need to actively roll back the progressive accomplishments of the past 80-some years.

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