Calvin Coolidge, the 1920s president sometimes called “Silent Cal,” left the world with one enduring quote. “The chief business of the American people,” he told a group of newspaper editors, “is business.”
Though Coolidge would never reach the exalted status of presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, this quote, interpreted as a paean to free enterprise and light regulation, would become a credo for generations of Republicans.
Until Donald Trump. If he were giving a similar speech today, it might go something like: “The chief business of American business is to pay homage to me, to do as I say, to serve as my political backdrop, and to recognize that I am the expert on all matters.”
Hardly a day goes by that the president, when he’s not busy insulting the late Sen. John McCain or the husband of aide Kellyanne Conway, doesn’t insert himself into some decision made by some business somewhere.
He rebukes companies like General Motors and Harley-Davidson when they close plants or impose layoffs, and takes credit when companies like Carrier decide to forgo layoffs (only to shift course later when the attention dies down).
He advocates higher postal rates for Amazon because he dislikes its CEO, Jeff Bezos. He orders his administration, according to a report in The New Yorker, to try to block the merger of AT&T and Time Warner because the latter owns CNN, with which Trump has been feuding.
The president imposes tariffs on steel and aluminum imports and then sets up a system whereby individual companies can apply for exemptions. Not surprisingly, many of these metals-consuming companies cite political justifications, such as their location in political battleground states. And, also not surprisingly, they often get their exemptions.
He tells the Federal Reserve to stop hiking interest rates, thereby inserting politics into what is universally viewed as a policy area that should be removed from politics. Most recently, he even jumped into the question of whether the Federal Aviation Administration should ground the Boeing 737 Max. Although Trump made the right call in this case, injecting himself into a question of aviation safety is not the way to generate public confidence.
Call Trump what he is: the nation’s meddler in chief. He claims to have slashed regulations. Actually, what he has done is impose new layers of government intervention, ones that comes directly from his office and conform to his whims of the moment.
Regulation by a faceless bureaucracy is bad enough. Regulation by a capricious, politically motivated officeholder is worse. One day you are running your company to the best of your ability, the next you are being slam-tweeted by the president or, worse yet, targeted by federal agencies because you said or did something that displeased the president.
Historically, the president’s job has been to help create a fair and favorable climate for all businesses, not to pick individual winners and losers based on personal vendettas or re-election concerns.
Democratic administrations have been excoriated for far less intervention in markets than this. Previous GOP presidents, extending from Abraham Lincoln to Coolidge to George H.W. Bush, would have been appalled.
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