Amity Shlaes, who directs the George W. Bush Institute’s economic-growth program, is the author of the book Coolidge, forthcoming from HarperCollins.
Action is something Americans of both parties demand of their presidents these days. This is natural for Democrats, whose heritage is all action, starting with Franklin Roosevelt and his Hundred Days. But Republicans like energy and a big executive as well. Over the course of the campaign this past year, any number of political stars, including Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, argued that only an energetic candidate would be up to the job of managing the U.S. fiscal crisis. Mitt Romney worked hard to let voters know his party could beat the Democrats in the legislative arena. He swore up and down that, à la Roosevelt, he would get off to a running start, sending five bills to Congress and signing five executive orders on his first day in the Oval Office.
The Grand Old Party’s abiding affection for a “bigger and better” presidency isn’t entirely logical. After all, the Obama presidency commenced with an effort to reenact the Hundred Days. Yet President Obama’s first-term economic performance itself was not “big” but mediocre, tiny even. Perhaps Republicans should consider whether inaction on the part of the White House can be desirable. Perhaps, led by Republicans, the United States could benefit from trying out an unfashionable idea: the small presidency.
Evidence from a near-forgotten period, the early 1920s, instructs us. In those days the country was suffering economic turmoil similar to our own. Because of a crisis — World War I — the government had intruded in business and financial markets in unprecedented fashion, nationalizing the railroads, shutting down the stock market, and entering the debt market with war bonds....