Presidential experience: A look at the data

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Governor Romney served just four years in public office as governor of Massachusetts. He has no experience working as a legislator, no experience serving in Washington and, most importantly, no foreign policy experience. Although he was a fairly successful and popular governor Romney has somewhat neutralized that experience by now coming out against the signature accomplishment of those four years in office – namely near universal health care achieved through an insurance purchase mandate – an accomplishment so essential to his governorship that he insisted on a copy of the bill being included in his portrait that hangs in the State House in Boston. His acceptance speech a week ago included a mere single sentence referring to his experience as governor.

While it is true that President Obama came to office with less than average presidential experience (twelve years), those criticisms were overstated. In fact, President-elect Obama had experience that ranked him tied for twenty-ninth out of forty-three men who have served as president. It is not to make any claim that Obama is another Lincoln to point out the empirical fact that his prior experience coming into office most resembled Lincoln’s.

Both men served eight years in the Illinois legislature. Both men became national figures during campaigns to become U.S. Senator from Illinois (Lincoln gained fame from his debates with Stephen A. Douglas and Obama with his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention). Both men opposed the two most famous wars of choice in American history (Lincoln introduced the “Spot Resolutions” opposing the Mexican War and Obama gave an address in 2002 in Chicago opposing the march to war with Iraq). Both men were elected to just one term to Congress before being elected president (Lincoln served just two years in the House while Obama resigned during his fourth year as a Senator including service on the Foreign Affairs Committee). Of course, going into this year’s election Obama’s public career will now be sixteen years with the important addition of four years in the Oval Office itself.

Governor Romney in his acceptance speech and elsewhere has posited the view that his years as a businessman also qualify him for the highest office in the land. While the argument that a successful businessman has the right skills to be a great president sounds quite persuasive, there is little support for this in American history. Very few presidents have had business experience. Only one president ranked in the upper half by historians had business experience and that was Harry Truman whose clothing store failed after three years.

The presidents who have had significant business experience as a group rank ten percentile points lower than those presidents who did not have business experience -- a relative performance differential that was only underperformed by mayors (-22.7%) and generals  (- 14.3%). Businessmen presidents Herbert Hoover, George W. Bush and Warren Harding were all ranked by historians in the bottom quarter.  George H. W. Bush, the president who comes closest to making Romney’s case, was ranked by historians just below the midpoint, but after leaving his highly successful business career Bush went on to gain foreign and national security policy experience as UN Ambassador, envoy to China and CIA Director and eight years as vice president before becoming Commander-in-chief.

Wise, a writer on public policy issues, is a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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