Photo by Sara Cottle on Unsplash

Does Experience Matter for a U.S. President?

A few weeks ago, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. That same evening, I found myself in a good natured argument with a friend about whether or not he’s qualified for the job.

Her position, in a nutshell, was that being mayor of a large city makes you plenty qualified to be a U.S. president. Mine was no. It does not.

I wish I could say I’ve had similarly constructive conversations about Pete Buttigieg, but I’m pretty sure that sighing loudly and rolling my eyes at the mere mention of his name doesn’t count as a coherent argument on my part. I should probably work on that.

What I should have said about Buttigieg is that he seems to have plenty of political talent, diplomatic ability, and a genuine desire to serve but I still think it’s a terrible idea for America to exchange one under qualified president for another.

I also question why the mayor of the third largest town in the 17th most populous state thinks it’s a good idea for him to run for the job of commander in chief instead of just supporting one of the more experienced people running, especially the women.

A friend shared her theory about why black voters have largely shunned Buttigieg as a candidate: “It’s not because he’s gay, it’s because we’ve all dealt with an inexperienced white guy who thinks he should be our boss, no matter how much longer we’ve been at the company before.”

Does history support a belief that experience matters?

Here’s what I believe: I believe U.S. presidents should already know how Washington DC works from their first day on the job. They should already have a robust network of relationships in place there.

They should have experience governing a wide variety of people, including those who live in cities and rural environments. They should already have years’ worth of being in the public eye at the state level at least, and have plenty of experience dealing with other elected officials in that limelight.

That means ideally, a U.S. president should have already served as a U.S. Congressperson and/or vice president and/or governor.

The Trump administration’s performance has done little to challenge my beliefs about the importance of political experience. I wondered, though, does history support them?

Yes. It does.

There have been six U.S. presidents with dramatically less political experience. Five of them — Zachary Taylor, Herbert Hoover, Donald Trump, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ulysses Grant — had never been elected to office prior to becoming president. William Taft served as an appointed governor prior to becoming POTUS, but never held elected office before that.

To understand how these less politically experienced presidents performed, I consulted two respected presidential rankings: the Siena Survey of U.S. Presidents and C-SPAN’s Presidential Historian Survey. Both survey a wide variety of historians, political scientists, and presidential observers. These experts then score each president on an array of qualities like integrity and leadership as well as moral authority and crisis management.

I dove into the data. Here are the four things I learned about whether or not experience matters in a U.S. president.

#1: Presidents with less experience rank lower overall.

Again, the way these surveys work is that a group of historians and observers will periodically rank each and every U.S. president on a variety of factors. These scores are then tallied up to get an overall ranking for each leader. Because the surveys rank a fixed number of U.S. presidents, the median score in each category is currently about 22. If we average out the rankings of just the less experienced presidents, their Siena ranking is 26.7 out of 44 and their C-SPAN ranking is 23.6 out of 43.* So, lower half.

A screenshot of the most recent Siena ranking of U.S. presidents, with less experienced presidents highlighted.

#2: Less experienced presidents are particularly bad at party leadership and executive appointments.

In most categories, the less experienced U.S. presidents were only moderately crappy at their jobs compared to their peers. Relationship with congress? A 26, on average. Foreign policy achievements? 26.8. If we were translating these averages into letter grades, our six less experienced presidents would, in the aggregate, just barely pass.

There were two categories, though where the less experienced presidents really bombed: party leadership and executive appointments. If we were going by these two categories only, our crew of noobs would have placed in the bottom third of presidents versus merely the bottom half.

When you think about it, it makes sense that less politically experienced presidents are so bad at party leadership. Relative outsiders tend to be controversial within their own parties and create sinkholes within it.

Taft caused a massive rift among Republicans when he fired a leading conservationist as head of the Forest Service. The rupture was so pronounced that Taft’s former champion in the GOP, Teddy Roosevelt, ran against him for the party’s nomination in 1912. The split cost Taft a second term and helped Democrat Woodrow Wilson win.

In recent years Ulysses Grant has been rising in some historians’ esteem, but when it came to political appointments, he was amateurish. Grant scoffed at the tradition of choosing party leaders for his cabinet. Instead, he took a nepotistic approach, prioritizing loyalty and surrounding himself with people he felt he could trust including two close friends. The result was a decidedly mixed cabinet with “many mediocre appointments,” a high turnover rate, and more than a few scandals among them. Sound familiar?

Other categories in which politically inexperienced presidents performed particularly poorly were foreign policy, avoiding mistakes, handling the economy, imagination, and communication.

#3: Historically, political experience is less important to conservative voters.

It’s worth noting all six of the less experienced U.S. presidents are Republicans. Three of them—Grant, Eisenhower, and Taylor—had successful military careers prior to taking office, so although they lacked experience in elected office, they did have significant experience as leaders in U.S. government.

In more recent years, a new trend is emerging. A year before Trump won, journalist Jonathan Rauch noticed America’s preference for political experience was declining, particularly among Republicans. Starting in 1996, the candidate with more experience began consistently losing.

Trump’s victory, of course, is the ultimate specimen of Rauch’s prescient observation, but it also played out in a primary election two years prior. U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican, lost his position to a total GOP newcomer Dave Brat, a Tea Party member who campaigned on an anti-immigration platform. That made Cantor the first sitting House majority leader to lose a primary since the position was created in 1899.

A year ago, political newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off another major upset when she defeated a ten term incumbent in the Democratic primary. Does her rise mean Democrats are starting to care less about experience too?

The difference, of course, is that Brat and Ocasio-Cortez ran for the House, where they could pay their dues and build the sort of relationships at which Ulysses Grant may have turned up his nose, but as it turns out, do actually help government function. Also, voters can now observe Ocasio-Cortez’s leadership prowess for years on end before someday possibly considering whether she should be entrusted with nuclear codes.

(Brat, by the way, is unlikely ever to end up in the oval. He lasted two terms, then lost to Democrat Abigail Spanberger.)

#4: In the U.S., there’s such a thing as too much experience.

The journalist who predicted Trump’s win despite himself also popularized the 14-Year Rule, an axiom created by a presidential speechwriter. That speechwriter noticed no one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his or her first Senate or gubernatorial win to either the presidency or vice presidency. Rauch fact checked his friend’s theory and found it works “astonishingly well” going back to the early 20th century.

So, freshness counts in the U.S. and the trend is only getting more pronounced. Who knows? Maybe tycoons like Bloomberg and Trump are the modern election cycle’s equivalent of conquering generals. Or here’s a depressing thought: maybe in an ever accelerating consumer culture, insight, acumen, and gravitas are just too hard won to be seen as valuable anymore. How can skills that take a long time to build survive in the age of two hour Amazon Prime delivery?

The exciting thing about outsider candidates is that people who have traditionally had limited access to political power can suddenly gain it. Their campaigns can act as a referendum on corruption and the establishment.

The risk of gatecrashers is they can be a fast track to extremism, a way for for crackpots and ideologues to leapfrog their way into unearned institutional power. More commonly, they just don’t perform as well and tend to cause rifts within their own parties.

Experience doesn’t guarantee greatness, but lack of it isn’t a virtue.

So, based on this information, can we say definitively whether political experience is a crucial characteristic for being a high performing U.S. president? Probably not. It’s too small sample size, but probably rightly so.

It does seem significant that among the six less experienced U.S. presidents only Dwight D. Eisenhower consistently makes it into the top half of historians’ rankings. Eisenhower was a center-right Republican who kept many of FDR’s New Deal programs in place despite objections from far right members of his party. His “Middle Way” approach worked well.

It’s important to note that the vast majority of the lower ranked U.S. presidents had plenty of political experience. Experience is no guarantee of greatness, but a lack of it shouldn’t be mistaken for a virtue. There are some experienced surgeons who are bad at what they do, but that doesn’t mean lack of experience is a good quality in a surgeon.

So, I still think it’s a mistake to put less experienced politicians in the Oval Office. I am among the dwindling number of Americans who believe that and yet, in general, the numbers are on my side.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Bloomberg’s lack of experience in high office ends up being an asset or a liability to his campaign. Lack of experience traditionally doesn’t go over well with Democrats yet Pete Buttigieg has been consistently polling among the top five Democratic presidential candidates. He would seem to be a prime example of America’s increasing preference for relative newbies. It’s been speculated, though, that Buttigieg is possibly only doing this well now because America’s most statistically white states are first in the primaries.

We’ll see what happens once South Carolina has something to say about it.

By the way, some of the less experienced presidents might have ultimately agreed with me that relative rookies shouldn’t seek out the White House. At the end of his presidency, Ulysses S. Grant said, “It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training.”

= = = =

*Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and the 24th president, so although there have been 45 presidential administrations, there have only been 44 unique individuals who served as president. C-Span doesn’t rank presidents who are still in their first term, so Trump is excluded from that ranking at present.

President of Grab Your Wallet Alliance, a non-profit that helps people flex their economic power in ways that promote an equitable, democratic society.

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