Businessmen, including Donald Trump, make bad presidents
© Getty Images

During the 2012 presidential campaign, several observers pointed out the fallacy of the notion that businessmen make good presidents. In 2016, as another businessman runs for president, many of his supporters tout his business acumen as an indicator he will make a great president. In fact, there is no track record of business success correlating with Presidential success? Historically, the correlation is nil, perhaps even inverse.

The majority of our Presidents have been lawyers or career politicians, 21 were both. There were eight generals, some engineers and professors, an actor, and a smattering from other professions. The unquestionably successful businessmen were Andrew Johnson (tailor), Harding (newspaperman), Hoover (mining), Jimmy Carter (farmer), Coolidge (banker) and George H.W. Bush (oilman). Some have attributed more of George W. Bush’s success in business to his connections and his name more than business skill, but he made over 15 times his original investment in the Texas Rangers.

Many surveys have ranked US Presidents in terms of their success or failure in office, assessing such qualities as leadership, political skill, character and integrity, including many surveys of presidential scholars, historians and political scientists. Although some assessments have a partisan taint, the surveys produce remarkably similar results. The top tier is always Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson and Truman. 

Across multiple surveys, for post-19th century Presidents the highest ranked are both Roosevelts, Truman, and Eisenhower. The lowest ranked are Hoover, Coolidge, George W. Bush and Harding. It appears Obama will ultimately lie in the middle of the pack, an average President. Harding was very successful in business but is consistently rated as one of the worst Presidents. Truman, who failed in business, became a great President.

According to a 2014 ranking by the American Political Science Association, a leading professional organization for the study of political science and the premier organization of experts on the American presidency, the best, most successful, post-19th century presidents, in order, were FDR, TR, Truman, Eisenhower, Clinton, Wilson, Reagan, LBJ, JFK, George H.W. Bush, Obama and Ford. Only one of these was a successful businessman (George H.W. Bush).  A ranking by the Siena College Research Institute, which surveys historians, political scientists, and presidential scholars, reached very similar conclusions. Only one of the post-1901 presidents with a business background, Truman, is consistently rated as among the best presidents.

The University of Virginia Center for Politics looked at the Siena and American Political Science Association data together, and the average ranking for businessmen presidents was 27; that figure is falsely inflated since it includes the successful president but failed businessman Harry Truman. The average ranking of the non-businessman presidents was much better at 14.25. The businessmen consistently rank in the lower third as presidents, non-businessmen in the upper third. Truman is the only one of the seven businessmen to rank in the top 10. Five of the 12 non-businessmen are Top Ten and two of these (FDR and TR) rank in the top five on the presidential success meter.

Averaging the American Political Science Association and Siena ratings and organized by primary pre-presidential vocation and background, from most to least successful the ranking is:  career politician (FDR), career politician (TR);  career politician and failed businessman (Truman);  Army General (Ike); professor/politician (Wilson); career politician (JFK); career politician (LBJ); actor and union organizer (Reagan) tied with career politician (Clinton); community organizer and career politician (Obama),  successful businessman/politician (GHWB);  career politician (Taft);  career politician (Ford); successful businessman/politician (Carter);  successful businessman (Coolidge); career politician (Nixon);  successful businessman (GWB); successful businessman (Hoover); successful businessman (Harding). The first successful businessman comes in at position 11, George H.W. Bush; of the bottom five, four were businessmen.

In the modern era, the number of successful businessmen who became successful presidents? None. Or conversely, the number of successful presidents who were successful businessmen? None. The number of successful businessmen who failed as president? Four.

The conclusion - Trump's business experience is irrelevant and may even be a liability. Historically, business success correlates more with presidential failure than success. So, there is absolutely no evidence to support the idea that Trump's past business success means he will be a good president.

Campbell is a practicing Neurologist and retired Army Colonel.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.