Calvin Coolidge: Domestic Affairs

Calvin Coolidge: Domestic Affairs

Calvin Coolidge brought a unique style to the White House. Although known for his public discomfort with chitchat and for his philosophical dislike of excessive leadership, Coolidge was a highly visible president. During his 67 months as President, he held 520 press conferences or an average of nearly eight each month, "bringing himself almost daily," wrote a reporter in 1927, "into the American home." He spoke on the radio at least monthly to national audiences. Coolidge also enjoyed having himself photographed. To the delight of cameramen, the President posed in old-fashioned overalls (when working on his father's farm), full Indian headdress (speaking to a crowd of ten thousand Sioux), and cowboy chaps and hat (on vacation in South Dakota). He was the first President to appear in a talking film--a recording of one of his speeches. He liked to make people laugh, and he used his dry, lean wit to punctuate his silence with pithy slogans. In formal addresses, in contrast, he was high-minded, serious, and dignified.

Although mocked for his afternoon naps, Coolidge was hardly slothful. He worked diligently, relying heavily on his Cabinet, but devoting serious attention to issues that crossed his desk. But his view of the presidency, like that of Harding immediately before him, marked a departure from the activism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Coolidge's political philosophy and personal temperament conveniently aligned in his belief that the President should not undertake sweeping new reforms to address the challenges of the modern, industrial age. He favored instead a hands-off leadership style and a restrained view of the executive, delegating tasks to his Cabinet, leaving most issues to the states to resolve, and even on federal matters frequently deeming restraint to be the wiser course than bold action.

Yet Coolidge was no reactionary. He is better understood as a transitional figure between the 19th century and the 20th. He embodied the small-town values of thrift and industry and a philosophy of minimal government, but at the same time he celebrated the economic boom over which he presided, and he embraced the new media of the modern culture.

Coolidge's domestic legacy can generally be described as conservative. His main concern was to sustain the economic prosperity that was returning when he took office. He favored a light hand in regulating business, strove hard to balance the budget (even managing to run a surplus), and cut the national debt. His fiscal restraint led him to veto two bills, both popular in Congress, that would have given bonuses to veterans--only to see them passed with a two-thirds majority.

The centerpiece of Coolidge's domestic agenda was his tax cutting. He championed the Revenue Acts of 1924 and 1926, a pet issue of his Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, the wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist whose "trickle-down economics" would later fall into disrepute. The Revenue Acts sharply reduced income taxes, especially surtaxes on the wealthy (taxes on most Americans were already very low). They also cut gift, excise, and inheritance taxes. At the time, many observers credited the cuts for what was widely called the "Coolidge Prosperity": robust growth, rising wages, declining unemployment and inflation, and a bull market. In fact, such propitious conditions probably had more to do with the effects of wartime spending and economic mobilization several years before.

It would be unfair to blame Coolidge for sharing the prevalent optimism of his time. In retrospect, however, it became apparent that his policies contributed to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. His fiscal policy encouraged speculation and ignored inequality, as the flow of dollars into the pockets of the wealthy helped tip the healthy investment of the mid-1920s into the gambling that followed. His hands-off regulatory policy took its toll especially in the financial arena, where the dangerous practice of margin trading was allowed to flourish unrestrained. And for all the heady growth of the 1920s, Coolidge's policies exacerbated the uneven distribution of income and buying power, which led to the overproduction of goods for which there were not enough affluent consumers.

Making matters worse, Coolidge failed to address the worsening economic plight of farmers. Many farm-state progressives embraced a panacea known as McNary-Haugenism, based on a proposal dating back to 1921 that would have established a government corporation to buy surplus crops at artificially set prices (to be held or sold abroad when market prices rose). Although the scheme might have shored up the depressed farm economy, it would have encouraged overproduction, hurt consumers, and posed dangers to the international system. Congress passed versions of the McNary-Haugen bill twice, but Coolidge vetoed them. Still he failed to champion any alternative legislation, thus worsening the farm crisis when the Great Depression struck.

Coolidge was not always doctrinaire. He put aside his political conservatism on several issues, particularly when prodded by his Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who ironically was considered at the time to be fairly activist and progressive in his views. Coolidge thought Hoover boastful and derided him as "Wonder Boy." "That man," he said, "has offered me unsolicited advice every day for six years, all of it bad." But he allowed Hoover to establish a new regulatory regime for the emerging industry of radio by signing the Radio Act, which declared the airwaves to be public property and subject to governmental control by the new Federal Radio Commission (later the Federal Communications Commission). He also reluctantly sent Hoover to the Midwest to undertake a massive rescue, relief, and reconstruction effort after the Mississippi River flood of 1927, the worst natural disaster in the United States until Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When Congress sought federal legislation, Coolidge balked, believing cities and states should bear the costs, but ultimately acquiesced in a compromise that spared the localities that burden.

On cultural matters, Coolidge tried to walk a fine line between the gaudy, freewheeling, new culture of the Jazz Age--many aspects of which he despised--and the resurgent fundamentalism represented by Prohibition, anti-evolutionists, and the Ku Klux Klan. He came under criticism for condemning the Klan only tepidly when it marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in 1925. He signed the Immigration Act of 1924, which set strict quotas on the number of eastern and southern Europeans allowed into America and excluded the Japanese altogether. On controversies that set the nation abuzz such as the Scopes Trial and the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, he kept a low profile.