Calvin Coolidge - Administrative style

Coolidge's administrative technique was simple, direct, and effective. After consulting with appropriate parties, he laid down the policies that he thought the federal government should follow. He made it clear that he expected his subordinates in the executive branch to do their jobs within those guidelines. He expected appointed officials to run their operations efficiently and economically. If they could not do these things, and do them well, Coolidge impressed upon them that he would find people who could. For civil servants, the president relied heavily on the concept of the merit system in recruitment, retention, and promotion. He made it clear, therefore, that he expected meritorious performance from those who had the security of a federal civil service position. Thanks to his reiterations of these points, Coolidge usually received excellent service from those employed in the executive branch.

In all this, Coolidge made good use of his power of appointment. Equally important, he effectively employed the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 and the agency established to administer this law, the Bureau of the Budget. The legislation had for the first time given the president substantial control over the appropriations requests of executive agencies and even over their spending of funds, enabling Coolidge to keep a tight rein on the funds, personnel, and programs of the various agencies and therefore on the system of rewards and punishments. Compared to later presidents, he did not have a great deal to administer, but what he did have he administered very well.

Coolidge also proved to be effective at publicizing his policies and activities. Central to this was his regularization of press conferences—his only innovation as president—which he usually held twice a week. Although Coolidge manipulated the news in his press conferences, he made himself a valuable and steady, though normally off-the-record, source of copy. His ability to establish an admirable rapport with news people was to help Coolidge considerably during the 1924 election campaign as well as throughout his presidency.

Coolidge came to the presidency with three obvious disadvantages. First, except for Secretary of War John Weeks of Massachusetts, he was not well acquainted with any of the members of the cabinet. Second, the cabinet he inherited varied considerably in quality. And, third, as a vice president succeeding to the presidency, Coolidge did not feel free to discharge summarily any of Harding's appointees. The new president set out methodically to become acquainted with his chief subordinates and their programs. Moreover, he made it plain to them that he was delegating considerable authority and responsibility to them as well as expecting them to he successful in doing their jobs. He emphasized that he would rely heavily upon them for information and advice, which he expected to be well considered.

This was a good start, but not good enough, considering the character of Harding's appointees. Some, such as Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, were outstanding by any measure. Others, such as Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, easily found accommodation with the new chief executive. Still others were able but independent, such as Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace. Coolidge's great problem would be with those who would prove to be embarrassments, such as Harding's close associate, Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty. These embarrassments would prove to be substantial, and soon in coming. They pointed up the flaw in the new president's idea: "If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you and you will have to battle with only one of them."

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