A Role Model for President Obama
By: David Bozeman
To restore America as a beacon of economic liberty and prosperity, President Obama could follow the lead of Warren Harding, born November 2, 1865.
Yes, that Warren Harding, of Teapot Dome, secret and not-so secret mistresses and all-night poker, whose two and a half-year term (1921-23) makes him, according to ‘expert’ opinion, the worst president ever. Not to excuse the scandalous conduct of some of his cabinet members or his own moral lapses, Harding bore no direct descendents to defend his name, and his brief presidency, which now feels as dated as speakeasies and silent movies, remains buried in historical memory between the much more lauded reigns of liberal aristocracy, Woodrow Wilson and FDR.
Contrary to popular perception, Warren Harding, according to author Robert Ferrell (The Strange Deaths of Warren Harding, and yes, that is plural) and a few others willing to question conventional wisdom, was conscientious, principled and may very well have worked himself to death. His tenure, slightly shorter than JFK’s, produced tax cuts, the end of wartime controls on industry, a modern system for establishing a federal budget, a high tariff on imports to protect American goods, and limits on immigration. He appointed such conservatives to the Supreme Court as former president William Howard Taft (chief justice) and George Sutherland and Pierce Butler, both of whom served till the late 1930s and opposed much of FDR’s New Deal agenda.
Harding deserves at least some of the credit for launching the prosperous Roaring 20s and for assuring that the economic downturn of 1920-21 would be forever known as ‘The Forgotten Depression.’ Simply, the president intervened hardly at all. He let banks and businesses fail, and, after slashing Wilson’s wartime tax rates, America’s economy took off. But sadly, grandiosity in the federal ranks seldom takes a holiday. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover urged Harding to establish a President’s Conference on Unemployment. Among its aims: cooperation between federal, state and local governments to increase public works (sound vaguely familiar?), and various proposals to manage employee-employer relationships.
Hoover would have to wait until his own presidency to fully get his turn at tinkering with the free market. The fact that Harding is consistently ranked below even Hoover diminishes the findings of the vaunted historians. But Harding, like his vice-president and successor, Calvin Coolidge, never courted the favor of elites. Harding was affable and self-effacing, and the American people, weary from World War I and the aloofness of the preceding Wilson administration, elected the newspaper owner from Marion, Ohio in a landslide. The efforts of Warren Harding simply did not reflect a childish ego or any audacious attempts at social or economic transformation. Love of country and free-market capitalism was not all that controversial in 1920. Today, unfortunately, such thinking is considered hayseed twaddle even in some corners of the Republican Party.
The bloated, state-expanding so-called good intentions of Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama have all won Nobel Prizes, but Harding and Coolidge answered to a much higher authority than some august committee in Scandanavia. They never pleaded to history ‘Like me! Like me!’ Amazingly, Harding’s reputation is enjoying a slight revival, but the legacy of Warren Harding endures in the notion that for any president to be successful, he or she must draw from the moral fortitude and industriousness of the people, for it is from there that America’s greatness thrives for generations to come.