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Monday, March 10, 2008

Experience Does Not Make a Great President

There is a must-read review of past American Presidents' experience as it relates to their perceived quality of governing at Electoral Vote.

How good are experienced presidents, anyway? Suppose you had to choose between two Presidential candidates, one of whom had spent 20 years in Congress plus had considerable other relevant experience and the other of whom had about half a dozen years in the Illinois state legislature and 2 years in Congress. Which one do you think would make a better President? If you chose #1, congratulations, you picked James Buchanan over Abraham Lincoln. Your pick disagrees with that of most historians, who see Lincoln as the greatest President ever and Buchanan as the second worst ever, better only than Warren "Teapot Dome" Harding. Both served in what was probably the most difficult period in American history, where slavery and secession tore the nation asunder.

Before becoming President, Buchanan had served 6 years in the Pennsylvania state legislature, 10 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, 4 years as ambassador to Russia, 10 years in the Senate, 4 years as Secretary of State, and 4 years as Ambassador to England. Talk about experience, Buchanan did just about everything except serve on the Supreme Court, a job he was offered by President Polk and refused. Yet by any measure, he wasn't up to the job as President. In contrast, Abraham Lincoln served 8 years in the Illinois legislature and one term in the U.S. House (1847-1849), a decade before becoming President. The rest of the time he was a lawyer in private practice, a bit thin one might say.

Click here for a chart
that summarizes the results of their review. The Presidents in the lower left are high-quality Presidents with little experience. The Presidents in the top right are poor-quality Presidents with tons of experience.

Note that there are a lot more Presidents in the bottom left than the top right.

Update: Here is some excellent analysis from a commenter on the Daily Kos:

There have been 55 presidential elections in US history. 28 times the person with most "experience" wins.
20 of 28 times was a reelection.

There have been 21 elections which resulted in a change of party in power. 14 of those elections were won by the candidate with the least experience.

Since 1900 there have been 10 elections resulting in a change of the party in power. In 9 of those elections the candidate with the least amount of experience won.


2000 Bush vs. Gore most experienced lost

1992 Clinton vs. Bush most experienced lost

1980 Reagan vs. Carter most experienced lost

1976 Carter vs. Ford most experienced lost

1968 Nixon vs. Humphrey candidates were equal in experience.

1960 Kennedy vs. Nixon most experienced lost

1952 Eisenhower vs. Stevenson most experienced lost

1322 FDR vs Hoover most experienced lost

1920 Harding vs Cox most experienced lost

1912 Wilson vs Taft and Teddy Roosevelt more
experienced lost

Update 2: Here is some additional analysis from another commenter:

Time Magazine had TWO excellent articles about Presidential experience:

"Does Experience Matter as a President"

"Experience, in other words, gets its value from the person who has it. In certain lives, a little goes a long way. Some people grow and ripen through years of government service; others spoil on the vine.
Baker, a former Secretary of State, still believes that a candidate with credentials should certainly tout them, but in the end, "there's no such thing as presidential experience outside of the office itself." The quality we ought to seek "is leadership."

and a second one:
"The Science of Experience"

"...three decades of research into expert performance has shown that experience itself — the raw amount of time you spend pursuing any particular activity, from brain surgery to skiing — can actually hinder your ability to deliver reproducibly superior performance. "

"in the end, determining which of the presidential candidates pays more attention to your concerns requires not adding up their years of experience but a far more complex calculation: deciding what their experiences have led them to truly value."

Read More: How Good Are Experienced Presidents?