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The Cult of the Presidency: To Do or Not to Do

The Counter Culture of Calvin Coolidge

There was one thing I remember learning about President Calvin Coolidge when I was in high school: he did nothing and my teacher derided him for it. The text-book labeled him as “the do nothing president”.

At the time I agreed, this made him a bad president. Because I thought the president was supposed to do something. My teenage self thought that leadership was vocal and active and these were two things Coolidge most certainly wasn’t. As I got older and actually experienced life rather than just read about it I learned about shadow leadership, servant leadership, the ability to persuade. I learned that you can’t demand respect you can only command it through personal effort.

I’ve seen various kinds of presidents, some better than others. All of them seemed driven to do something though. In some cases that was alright because what they were trying to do, was actually working to undo. To undo the things that the mighty doers who came before them did.

What did the doers do?

They raised taxes, changed our monetary system, created bureaucracies, regulated businesses, suggested bans on video games and music, created more laws, locked people in island prisons, spied on us, and went to what seems to be endless war. A few tried to lower the taxes, deregulate a bit, restore a few freedoms here and there but none restored much and even they had to be doers.

I suppose they figure they have a country to run. The don’t though. That’s not the American system. America was designed to be a country that runs itself after a manner. The president is the chief executive officer and commander-in-chief. This of him as a manager. He does budgets, manages personnel, has the veto to be a check on congress, and acts as the representative of the country with foreign governments.

FDR, isn't he Swell! {sarcastic}

The only qualifications to be president are pretty simple, be at least 35 years old, a natural-born citizen, and have lived in the United States at least 14 years consecutively. That and, of course, be voted in by the Electoral College.

Once elected the president takes an oath. This oath spells out what his most important role is.

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Not very long is it? But it most certainly tells us what the president’s priority should be, to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. For the most part, doing nothing is the best way to do that because the Constitution intentionally gives very little power to the federal government. It says a few things it can do, a few things it must do, and a few it can’t. If it’s not mentioned then it can’t do it and the power is reserved for the states. When the president swears to preserve that he’s basically taking an oath to maintain the status quo; not the status quo of the president before him but the status quo of the first president and that is liberty.

The Cult of the Presidency

That’s a recent term for an old idea. In fact the near worship of the US President by citizens began with the very first president, George Washington.  Washington gave up his generalship, returned to his farm. Was president for two terms then gave that up too even though there was nothing in the Constitution about term limits. This gesture was honored until, about 150 years later, another president, quite a doer, decided he wanted to be president longer and do some more stuff. That was Franklin Roosevelt.

Oh, how Roosevelt went on doing things! They call it the “New Deal” which I personally think is an apt name since it was certainly nothing like the old deal of liberty and minimal government power. Perhaps this is because Roosevelt never had a farm to return to and the country club was so drab. But that’s for a different day to discuss.

Roosevelt solidified the role of president as a doer, as the man people looked toward for safety, help, protection, and even food for the table.

People swoon and cry and get a thrill up their leg at the wonderful president and his personality. Everyone looking at him expectantly asking themselves the one and only pertinent question anyone possibly could ask, “what will he do next?”

Enter Trump

Now we have a president to beat all presidents in terms of force of personality. He’s bold, big, fast talking, and charismatic like a tent revival preacher working the crowd not for souls but for coins in the collection plate.

Trump wields his pen like he wields his personality – often and with a flourish. One executive order after another. He’s keeping his promises. He’s living up to the purpose of his being elected: things in American aren’t going well and something has to be done.

For once the group of people in American that have been pushing, pushing, pushing, for the government to do more – the leftists – have sat up and taken notice of a president and his promises of reform and action. Only this time they don’t look with rapt expectation for a wondrous chicken to fly into every pot. This time they are afraid that the president will take freedoms away. They are finally asking the only pertinent question with the right tone of voice and the right amount of trepidation.

“What will he do next?”


“Americans today place enormous pressure on presidents to “do something”…anything, to get the economy going. There was one president, though, Calvin Coolidge, who did “nothing” — other than shrink government. What happened? America’s economy boomed. Is there a lesson to be learned? Award-winning author, historian, and biographer Amity Shlaes thinks so.”

4 thoughts on “The Cult of the Presidency: To Do or Not to Do

  1. Platypus – Be on the look out for facts that aren’t facts . . . that seem too good to be true in terms of supporting a narrative one way or the other. If it seems to good to be true, it probably is.

    In other words, you were introducing an alternative fact, and it wasn’t worth the effort to say so.

  2. You say, “Presidents have always added, “so help me God” to the end of that though that’s not in the Constitution.”

    That’s not right. There’s no contemporaneous record saying that Washington added “So help me God” to his presidential oath. We have to wait until the 20th century before there’s reliable documentation of an elected president using those words. It’s only with FDR that presidents have always added SHMG.

    You could say that part of the “New Deal” was padding the presidential oath with a extra-constitutional religious codicil. The novelty of the SHMG codicil was still so unusual that it was singled out by the author of the Jan. 20, 1937 Newsweek article, by saying that FDR, after taking the constitutional oath, “gratuitously and unconstitutionally” added the words, ‘So help me God’ to his oath, instead of merely uttering the “customary ‘I do'” [as had previously been done by Herbert Hoover].

    1. “There’s no contemporaneous record saying that Washington added “So help me God” I do know that, and knew it when I wrote the article. However, I considered the time it would take to explain that not worth the effort. It’s a minor thing that doesn’t undermine the point being made. The article is about how people see the president and the presidency and not about additions to the oath.

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