Barack Obama had Bo and Sunny. George W. Bush had Barney and Miss Beazley. Bill Clinton had Buddy and Socks.
While reminding us that the leader of the free world maintains some semblance of life outside the arena, these presidential pets rarely served overtly political purposes.
But one early 20th-century American president used two of his pets to teach a clear lesson about his political priorities. It’s a lesson still worth teaching today.
Author Amity Shlaes shared the story April 16, during a presentation in Cullowhee for Western Carolina University’s Center for the Study of Free Enterprise. “The Coolidges had animals — they loved animals,” Shlaes explained while pointing to a photo. “Those are their kitty cats. They’re lion cubs.”
President Calvin Coolidge had accepted a gift of twin lions from the mayor of Johannesburg, South Africa. Shlaes recounted the anecdote from her 2013 biography of the 30th U.S. president. “The Coolidges did not name their lions Millie or Bo or Socks, or so on,” Shlaes said. “They named them Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau.”
“What Coolidge liked about the lion cubs was that they were the same weight — they were twins,” Shlaes explained. “And he fed them even-steven. … He didn’t want one big, fat cat and one runt.”
Coolidge was sending a message that a sound federal budget mattered just as much as the worthwhile goal of reducing tax burdens. The emphasis on both low tax rates and frugal budgeting means that Coolidge deserves an A grade for his tax reform efforts in the 1920s, Shlaes said.
The top individual income tax rate, which had reached as high as 77 percent during World War I, dropped to 58 percent under Coolidge’s predecessor, Warren Harding. “Coolidge managed to get it down to 25 percent, which is lower, by the way, than Ronald Reagan’s top rate,” Shlaes said. “The stock market kind of liked that. … It more than doubled under President Coolidge. The economic growth [rate] was 4 percent real, which we don’t often have today.”
Unemployment dropped substantially, while entrepreneurship and innovation boomed. “The patent level was through the roof,” Shlaes said. “Productivity gains showed up on factory floors.”
Coolidge’s A grade cannot be attributed to tax cuts alone, Shlaes contends. “At the same time that he cut taxes and cut taxes, he also worked on the budget,” she said. “He vetoed 50 bills that asked him to spend more.”
And the president did more than wield his veto stamp. “In 67 months, … he actually cut the budget,” Shlaes explained. “He didn’t merely reduce the increase, which is what we talk about today when we talk about cutting the budget. He actually cut the budget, even though the economy grew, of course, over the 67 months and the population did as well. And that’s the nature of his day: fiscal trust.”
While Coolidge’s tax reforms deserve an A, others fall short of that mark, in Shlaes’ estimation. For example, she assigns an A-minus or B-plus grade to one of Coolidge’s biggest fans: Ronald Reagan.
The 40th president helped bring the top individual income tax rate down from 70 percent to 28 percent by 1986. That positive achievement fails to tell the whole story, Shlaes said.
“That’s because Reagan took care of only one lion, which is the tax-cut lion,” she said. “He didn’t care so much about budget. He ran budget deficits. He didn’t revise entitlements, which are budgetary commitments in the future. So he kind of set a ticking time bomb of entitlement obligations for future presidents to deal with.”
Shlaes assigns an even lower B grade to the most recent federal tax cut of 2017. While she likes much of the package, including cutting the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, she says President Trump and Congress left important issues unresolved.
“This tax cut didn’t do anything about the budget, maybe even made costs greater, and said nothing about all of the other spending,” she explained. “The stock market went up after the tax cut, and then it went down again when the government began to announce tariffs and President Trump signed and Congress wrote a really awful budget spending bill.”
“Again there is only one lion cub: tax,” Shlaes said. “And everyone in Washington acted as if the budget didn’t matter at all.”
Shlaes sees a negative long-term impact, especially for the WCU students in her audience. “This doesn’t do much for your trust,” she said. ”You’re expecting that you’ll be able to pay for a pension. You’re expecting that you’re going to be able to have a mortgage with a low interest rate when it comes time to buy your house. … And that is not at all assured by the tax cut.”
Ninety years after Coolidge left the White House, his emphasis on both twin lion cubs still offers a useful precedent. One can hope that Washington leaders eventually will follow Silent Cal’s lead.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.