The Case For Doing Nothing

Paul Greenberg

9/15/2011 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

One of the chief functions of a president of the United States is to serve as the focus of the nation's gripes. It was only to be expected that Barack Obama would be criticized even for taking a family vacation on Martha's Vineyard.

Me, I think the president ought to take more time off. The less he fiddles with the economy, the better it might do. Unfortunately, the president is always being urged to Do Something.

But what the poor, listless American economy could use most just now is a good leaving alone. Instead, it seems to get a new economic program every Tuesday and Thursday. Like a patient being dosed with one drug after another in rapid succession, each to counteract the previous one.

No wonder the general effect of Dr. Obama's unending nostrums has been a failure to thrive. Over-medication will do that.

Some of us are old enough to remember how much time Dwight Eisenhower spent on the links -- and the country was seldom in better hands.

Ah, the 1950s. In the perspective of history, all their tumult now fades and the Eisenhower Years now seem like a rest cure. As president, the old general may not have done much in particular, but he did it particularly well. The man was lazy like a fox. He knew when to do nothing, which is a rare talent in these entirely too busy days in politics.

The man everybody called Ike ended one war, stayed out of others, and mainly left the economy alone so it could grow without constant interference. Which it largely did, despite a down year or two. Resilient patients can heal on their own -- if they're not being constantly poked and prodded, given a diet of uppers one day, downers the next.

General Eisenhower must have found his two presidential terms a snap after planning and executing the D-Day invasion, not to mention having to handle both the Germans and Bernard Montgomery during the Battle of the Bulge.

As president, Ike faithfully executed the laws and became the very symbol of moderation in all things. Not a very exciting performance, but some of us would happily trade excitement for stability any time. Especially these dispiriting days.

The lesson of the Eisenhower Era: There is such a thing as salutary neglect. Maybe our current president should try it sometime.

To sum up my advice to this president, which I'm sure he waits for every day with bated breath:

Don't just do something, Mr. President. Stand there.

Why not? It worked for Calvin Coolidge, who "exalted inactivity to a fine art," to quote the historian Samuel Eliot Morison. It was Walter Lippmann who summed up the Coolidge style, or lack of it, as "active inactivity." The result? Peace, prosperity and a renewal of national confidence after the scandals that his ill-fated predecessor, Warren G. Harding, left behind on his sudden demise.

Having inherited all these scandals, Silent Cal had the wisdom to just stand aside and let justice take its course. He neither launched a witch hunt nor issued sweeping pardons like the one Gerald Ford granted Richard Nixon after Watergate. The country was given time to heal and the economy was left to prosper on its own.

Calvin Coolidge would leave office at the height of his popularity. "I do not choose to run for President in 1928," he declared in August of 1927 -- in the course of a three-month vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota, far away from Washington's miasmic air.

At the end of his presidency, Calvin Coolidge would leave behind a united nation and an economy marked by strong growth, little inflation, lower unemployment and a smaller national debt. Who wouldn't settle for that now?

Yes, after Coolidge would come the Crash, but those who would lay it at his door would do better to look at the Fed's tight-money policies.

Naturally the intellectuals of his day derided him. In a mock tribute, H. L. Mencken described Coolidge as the "greatest man ever to come out of Plymouth, Vermont," and said his chief feat during "five years and seven months in office was to sleep more than any other president."

Of course that was before Ronald Reagan, another great napper in the White House. He, too, would leave the country much better than he found it, which was in the middle of the Carter Malaise.

Let it be noted that even Mr. Mencken had to give Coolidge his due. "There were no thrills while he reigned," wrote the Sage of Baltimore, "but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas and he was not a nuisance." Which beats having nothing but ideas, none of which seem to work.