If Americans remember William Howard Taft (1857-1930), the twenty-seventh president of the United
Rosen positions Taft as the anti-Theodore Roosevelt, a man who famously changed his political positions throughout his career. Instead, Taft was remarkably consistent from his earliest legal cases through his presidency and as chief justiceship. Both men had very different perceptions of the presidency. While Roosevelt believed that he could do anything that was not expressly forbidden by the constitution, Taft argued that he could only do what was expressly permitted. For example, Taft felt that under article 2, section 3, he could only recommend items for Congress to consider, and not to try to persuade legislators either individually or collectively toward adopting specific measures. Roosevelt, of course, saw no such barrier to the president exerting as much influence as he could to shape legislation. Finally, unlike the Roosevelt who selectively prosecuted the Sherman Anti-Trust Act according this his own definition of good and bad business combinations, the conservative Taft followed the dictates of the statutes and his administration filed more suits than his progressive predecessor.
Taft seems bland and overshadowed by both his predecessor Roosevelt and his successor Woodrow Wilson, two of the most important and progressive presidents in American history. The fact that Taft suffered the worst return of any president seeking re-election in the history of our nation, only adds to this perception. Taft is considered to be one of the unhappiest of our chief executives. The signature issue of his administration, the Payne-Aldrich Tariff, is traditionally portrayed a complete fiasco that Taft compounded with one of the biggest presidential gaffes of the twentieth century. Rosen presents an alternative view. He argues that Taft was an exceptional administrator who wanted the federal government to function efficiently. This is certainly an underappreciated attribute in evaluating presidents. We certainly could use someone with Taft’s sensibilities in the oval office today! Rosen devotes considerable time to the tariff revision and makes the case that it was significant accomplishment, even claiming that Taft successfully tackled an issue that Roosevelt dared not touch. While there is a certain element of truth in this, Roosevelt was a master politician who wielded threats of tariff revision to build legislative majorities and support for his administration on issues that concerned him. In truth, he really did not care about the tariff. In tackling such a complex issue with a fractured party (thanks in some part to Roosevelt), the borderline politically inept Taft put his own administration on the defensive from day one and struck a fault line that continued to divide his party right through the 1912 election and beyond. Instead of seeing Taft as out of place between two progressives, Rosen points to some continuities. One example, is Rosen’s argument that some of Taft’s foreign policy initiatives like the World Court and the reciprocity treaty with Canada (although it was not ratified by Canada) were harbingers not only of Wilsonianism but much more broadly of American policy later in the twentieth century. Admittedly, it seems that Rosen does overreach in some of his claims. Personally, I wish he would have addressed Peri Arnold’s claim in Remaking the Presidency(2009) that Taft’s difference from his progressive predecessor and successor was somewhat due to the fact that he had a antiquated nineteenth century concept of the presidency, whereas Roosevelt and Wilson recognized how the office had changed in the early years of the twentieth century. Rosen is much more convincing in describing Taft’s reformist tendency to the institution of the Supreme Court. His innovative reforms, which he aggressively lobbied Congress to pass, substantially altered the focus of the federal judicial system.
Circling back to where I began this short review, Rosen notes that Taft was at his heaviest when he was in