For the history-minded, news that president Obama appears to be mulling a possible privatization of the TVA is at least a little bit ironic – and definitively ironic is the opposition that Tennessee’s two Republican Senators are already voicing against any such proposal.
Sen. George W. Norris (photo courtesy Digital Archives. Library of Congress)
During the 1920s, the virtues of public vs. private ownership of dams and plants to harness the Tennessee River’s giant hydroelectric potential were hotly debated. Originally, the U.S. government had begun construction on two dams and two nitrate plants near Muscle Shoals in northern Alabama during WW I. When the war ended before the project was completed, the Harding administration at first sought to transfer the installation into private ownership.
This blog -when it descends from the lofty heights of Coolidge scholarship into the dense fog of contemporary politics- is often critical of the current incumbent, but as the world looks towards Washington, D.C. today Jan. 21, 2013, for Barack Obama’s second inauguration, we wish him good luck and Godspeed in conducting the administration of the government these coming four years to the benefit of all.
By way of contrast to today’s pomp and circumstances, here’s a link to a segment filmed by CBS News right in Plymouth Notch, VT, to remind viewers of the memorable and unique midnight swearing-in of Calvin Coolidge. It features the spectre of Calvin Coolidge himself (impeccably impersonated by Jim Cooke, Coolidge scholar, as well as frequent and valued commenter on this blog):
Just a short note today – this post by Tim Cavanaugh at reason.com caught my eye. Why? Because in the very first sentence, he mentions Calvin Coolidge, if only by way of contrast to Barack Obama: “The way President Barack Obama’s acolytes are calling for bold action in his second term, you’d think he had been some kind of prudent Calvin Coolidge in his first.”
And, of course, because I’m wary of the laundry list of progressive pet schemes that Obama and his minions are pushing, on the back of what they construe as his “mandate” from the electorate. Post-Coolidge, presidents have often entertained grand ideas, some of them because they genuinely thought they were doing something good for the country, some very likely because they were working on their own legacy and you don’t usually get a big write-up in history books, let alone a monument on the Mall, if you’re content to merely “do the day’s work,” as was Coolidge’s wont. If Calvin Coolidge was, in the words of Amity Shlaes, “the great refrainer,” Barack Obama surely aims for the title of “the great 21st century progressive,” and the great destroyer of Ronald Reagan’s legacy. Given the perilous state the nation’s finances are in already, this could not have come at a worse time.
The always recommended Burt Folsom poses the question “Who was the last president to have a great second term?” and you’ll never guess who – none other than Calvin Coolidge (some might claim his second term wasn’t really that, as his “first term” consisted of serving out his predecessor’s term). As Folsom goes down the list of two-termers since Coolidge, it becomes clear that second terms have a way of being a letdown. While circumstances and events were different in each of those cases, there is little doubt that re-elected presidents usually have an eye on their legacy, which unfortunately often means the creation of projects and programs that saddle future generations with snowballing costs. It is a safe bet that Barack Obama will try to leave a progressive legacy, and not follow the restrained course of Coolidge, but a gridlocked Congress and the lack of a true mandate may mean that his leeway in shaping his legacy turns out to be somewhat constrained. If a costly legacy is what he has in mind, there is hope that his second term will join the list of failed second terms that are a letdown for presidents but a respite for the nation.
In the third and final presidential debate, president Obama had a good laugh at Mitt Romney’s expense when he pointed out that while it may be true that the U.S. Navy is poised to have the smallest fleet size since 1914, the U.S. “also has less horses and bajonets.” Never mind that the U.S. has to project its power globally today, relying on the Navy for much of that job. In another scripted quip, the president stated that many of Romney’s foreign policy concepts recalled the 1980s, just as his social policy concepts were a throwback to the 1950s and his economic policies to the 1920s.
Fans of Calvin Coolidge are justly proud of his (as well as his predecessor Warren Harding’s, and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon’s) economic record during the 1920s, and I’m pleased to direct readers’ attention to a fine retort by Amity Shlaes in her Bloomberg column, where she gives a point-by-point rebuttal to the president’s attempt to tar the Twenties. I suppose the 1950s and 1980s will have to find their own defenders!
In a recent American Prospect piece, Jamelle Bouie makes the case that Mitt Romney, far from returning to any moderate-leaning instincts he may once have possessed, will, if elected, turn out to be a willing tool of a resurgent ultra-conservative Republican Party. While he makes it clear that he sees this as a dire scenario, some of us are downright hopeful when he quotes Romney saying, as he did in an April 13 speech at the NRA, that “instead of expanding the government, I will shrink it. Instead of raising taxes, I will cut them. Instead of adding regulations, I will scale them back.”
Echoing president Obama’s skewed depiction of the Republican agenda as “social darwinism,” Bouie contends: “The modern Republican Party isn’t trying to build a fairer or more equitable society, and it doesn’t care for the interests of low- or middle-income Americans. To borrow from Paul Ryan, it stands for the “makers” against the “takers.” It aims to gut government and give the spoils to the rich. In a sense, it seeks to revive the age of Calvin Coolidge, when government was small, inequality high, and the economy an exclusive playground for the wealthiest and most powerful Americans. If Mitt Romney is elected, the GOP will have a president who shares that vision.”
Besides the overblown and ridiculous claim that the GOP is merely a tool for “the rich,” I submit this also is a remarkably one-sided characterization of the Coolidge years. By most unbiased accounts, the Coolidge 20s were a period of rapid and, more importantly, broad-based economic growth, while the Mellon-Coolidge taxation regime lowered taxes for all, and disproportionately for the lower rungs of society. It is true that in Coolidge‘s day there were fewer “takers,” or recipients of redistributed wealth, and I for one would argue that the nation was better for it.We can only hope that Mitt Romney, once he is duly nominated and hopefully elected -if possible in tandem with a Republican House and Senate- will return Calvin Coolidge‘s picture to its rightful place on the White House wall and to Coolidge‘s nostrums in dealing with the “prairie fire of debt” he has already identified as the nation’s number one problem.
Do you find it cute or creepy that the Obama team has shoehorned his name into the official online White House bio of every president since Calvin Coolidge (save Gerald Ford)? I expect they will work their way up to George Washington soon, for clearly president Obama has taken the accomplishments of every one of his predecessors and taken them to a whole new level.