Presidents should avoid 'great' — for their own good and the nation's

Presidents should avoid 'great' — for their own good and the nation's
© Greg Nash

Presidents can’t resist “great.” 

That’s the evidence from the early days of the Biden administration. Since President TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Missouri Rep. Billy Long enters Senate GOP primary Trump-backed Mike Carey wins GOP primary in Ohio special election MORE uttered the word “great” so often that he was parodied, you might think a new president from a different party would opt for another adjective. Yet, President BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries FDA aims to give full approval to Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day: report Overnight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response MORE dropped “great,” “greatest” or “greatness” five times in his inaugural address — six, if you count his reference to the Great Depression. That’s the same “great” count as President Trump’s inaugural address

President Biden’s “greats” are clearly a bold effort at rebranding: His “great” will be the polar opposite of MAGA great, more like the “great” in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Still, a look at the past of both parties suggests that presidents deploy “great,” whether in reference to themselves, their political agenda or the nation’s challenges, at their peril.

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Start with President Biden’s own Democrats. Most dramatic is the story of President Johnson, who built an entire agenda around that slogan. The ambition of the Great Society, introduced in a speech at the University of Michigan in 1964, was nothing if not great. At various points in the Great Society launch period, Johnson promised to cure — not reduce — poverty, to transform life in cities, to revolutionize health care through Medicare for seniors, to improve education, and to bring equality of opportunity to Americans of all races. Not content with those goals, he later, in a speech at Howard University, added another: equality of result, something close to the “equity” which President Biden and Vice-President Harris set as their own target.

Equality of opportunity did increase in the United States during Johnson’s era, and after him. Medicare, you could perhaps argue, delivered — but only at a cost to later generations, a bill that has come due and with which the Biden administration will have to reckon. Many of the other Great Society programs proved to be disappointments or worse. Poverty did not disappear with the Great Society but settled, seemingly permanently, at a level of around 10 percent. Education did not improve — standardized test scores, the least-subjective measure we have, fell following Great Society reforms. Racial divisions haven’t faded — indeed, they have been institutionalized. By the end of his first elected term, Johnson, deeply disappointed, found himself retreating to smallness, and calling for “austerity” — a word which must have felt strange to him. It wasn’t merely the Vietnam conflict that drove Johnson to abjure a second term; he was mired in the failures of his own Great Society. 

Before Johnson, another Democrat stumbled over “great.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address contains six “greats,” mostly mentioned as he sketched out his plan to counteract that other “Great” — the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s response, the New Deal, aimed to eliminate the Depression’s worst troubles — “our greatest primary task is to put people to work,” as Roosevelt put it in his own inaugural address in March 1933. Yet, while unemployment in the 1930s did drop, it did not drop definitively below 10 percent. Indeed in the later 1930s, during Roosevelt’s second term, unemployment worsened, crossing the 15 percent line.

Aspiring to “great” has often stymied Republicans as well. President Trump’s fondness for the word in the end revealed that his personal desire to be perceived as great often got in the way of successfully promulgating great policy. Ronald Reagan’s “great” count in his first inaugural was 10, higher even than Presidents Biden and Trump. You can argue — we would — that Reagan did achieve some of his “great” goals — leading the United States (“this last and greatest bastion of freedom,” as Reagan put it) in a period when its greatest enemy, the Soviet Union, imploded. Another goal of Reagan’s was to reduce the “great” burden of heavy taxation. Reagan did that, cutting taxes dramatically enough to facilitate the 1980s and 1990s booms, themselves great. But Reagan fell short in another area of challenge we would consider “great”: that of narrowing federal deficits. “For decades,” Reagan warned, “we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children's future for the temporary convenience of the present.” The Gipper did not pay off that mortgage and left in place programs that made its future widening inevitable.

Our own favorite president, Calvin Coolidge, makes an interesting case. Coolidge repeatedly used the “G” adjective in his 1925 inaugural address — indeed, some 19 times, more frequently than the aforementioned presidents. But Coolidge’s conception of greatness related to America’s institutions. These institutions were great, Coolidge believed, not because they enabled the government to undertake ambitious projects but because they guarded the rights of individuals. As long as Americans had the freedom to pursue their ideals, Coolidge knew, they would do great things. But all too often the government itself was a barrier. Coolidge, like Reagan, therefore warned against the “great burden” taxation placed upon people. The collection of taxes for costs beyond those absolutely necessary was, Coolidge charged, “legalized larceny.” Coolidge’s greatest fight as president — and it was a great fight — was for a balanced budget, something Coolidge achieved every year in office. 

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As for presidents themselves, Coolidge rejected the concept of “Great, c’est moi.” Applying the concept of greatness to presidents or their administrations made him wary, perhaps because Coolidge recalled that his predecessor, Warren Harding, who told others, “I want to have a really great Cabinet,” was brought down by the corruption of the very “greats” he appointed. Coolidge believed presidents ought not even aspire to greatness: “It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country,” Coolidge wrote in his autobiography, for a president “to know that he is not a great man.”

This short survey of “greats” and “greatness” suggests the term works best for presidents when they apply it to America’s institutions and citizens, not presidential greatness or great government endeavors, which so often morph into folly. If more politicians, including presidents, acquainted themselves with this evidence, the outcomes might be good — if not great. 

Amity Shlaes and Matthew Denhart are editors of a new edition of “The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge,” published by Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Shlaes chairs the board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation and is the author of six other books, including “Great Society: A New History.” Follow her on Twitter @AmityShlaes. Denhart is chief financial officer of the Coolidge Foundation, following seven years as its executive director and president.