Does “executive experience” equate to Presidential success? Part 1

I’m really, really curious.  I want to look at the presidencies of the United States — ALL OF THEM — and see if “executive experience” really makes a great president.  After all, it’s really being talked about right now.  The Democratic ticket has no executive experience.  Sarah Palin has way more executive experience.  Blahbity blah blah blah.

But does it matter?  Do you need that sort of experience to go down in history as a good president?  And if you have that sort of experience, does it help solidify your place in history as a good president?

This should be fun.  I love this sort of thing, and I’m sure I’ll learn more about our past commanders-in-chief.  Maybe you will, too!  I’m way too lazy to cite stuff, so you’ll just have to trust me that I’m not making anything up.  I’m just doing this for fun so I don’t want to hear any grumbling about my lack of sources.  I’m doing this for me, for my own enjoyment, and just typing it up here so that others might get a kick out of it, too.

I’m going to write this as I research it.  Meaning, as I write, I’m not going to know what I find out about future presidents.  I’m going to start at #1, and go all the way through #43, summarizing the CV of each for its level of “executive experience” and then deciding if each has been remembered as a “good” president (mostly through my own opinion but I will try to be somewhat objective).  And I guess I should have a way analyze the results.  Maybe a comparative percentage presentation — percent of ‘good’ presidents with executive experience combined with ‘bad’ presidents without executive experience (null) vs. percent of ‘good’ presidents without executive experience combined with ‘bad’ presidents with executive experience (alternative).  That should work.  I’d expect, based on the rhetoric during the Republican convention so far that the first percentage will be higher than the second percentage.  We shall see!

First, let’s define “executive experience”.  (And again, I have very little knowledge in the way of the backgrounds of the Presidents through the ages — I have no idea what I’m going to find as I Google each man.)

OK — executive experience:  Let’s call it an ‘executive’ government job — at minimally, the level of governor.  I’m simply not convinced that VP should count.  Yes, in the early days of the country they were elected separately, and nowadays they often play significant advisory roles, and they preside over the Senate counting votes and breaking ties, I gotta say, I just don’t see how ‘executive’ it is.  And the Secretaries of the Cabinets…. on the face I want to count them, but they are heads of such narrowly focused organizations…. I just asked Frank and he votes no, not to count them.  So I won’t.  Owning and/or running a fairly large business as CEO.  Attaining the rank of Lieutenant General or General in the Armed Forces (or Vice Admiral or higher in the Navy).  And maybe I’ll give credit as I go for some other stuff.

I am not aiming to decree someone a good or bad person, or to lift up or decry their activities and accomplishments before and after the presidency.  Obviously our initial string of Presidents were all founding fathers, and in and that of itself is a measure of their personal greatness.  I’m trying to objectively form an opinion of these men as Presidents, independent of their other life achievements (or lack thereof).  So… should I decide that Thomas Jefferson was a crappy president, please don’t crucify me.  I’ll just decide, of my own opinion based on the trifle of things I read for each president, whether they were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (ie. not necessarily BAD, but mediocre or worse).  Feel free to argue with me.  It will only increase my own learning on the matter.

So let’s get to it, shall we?

#1 — George Washington.  He was a General.  He led the entire Continental Army and then later the official United States Army.  Before his army career he was a farmer (a rich and successful one, though he did not make himself rich, he was ‘old money’.)   Good president?  By all accounts, I would say so.  It seems pretty agreed upon how thoughtful and fair he was, and how he listened and sought out opinions from all sides before making a decision.  Most importantly, the new country did not crumble under his leadership, as it most likely had the potential to in those early years.  So:  EE: yes.  Good: yes.

Oooh, I’m going to need a spreadsheet.  If only I had a friend or two who liked this sort of thing…

#2 — John Adams.  He was VP for eight years under GW.  Before that he served in what could be considered the legislative branch of the colonial government, first for the Massachusetts colony and then in the Continental Congress.  Before THAT he was a lawyer, who notably defended the British soldiers who committed the Boston Massacre and were subsequently charged with murder.  He achieved acquittals for six, and two were convicted of manslaughter.  So under my definition, he doesn’t have the executive experience I’m looking for.  It seems to be generally agreed that while he was viewed unfavorably during his time, history has viewed John Adams with a more favorable eye.  Specifically, the U.S. was having major problems with France.  The American populace hungered to go to war with France.  John Adams managed to avoid war and even more so, become allies with France before the end of his term.  I have to vote that Adams, all in all, was a success.  Again, the fledgling country stayed afloat, and since there’s “no such thing as a good war or a bad peace”, avoiding a war with a major superpower of the time was obviously (to me and others) a pretty wise move.  So… EE?  No.  Good?  Yes.

#3 — Thomas Jefferson.  Among his other notable accomplishments, like having Jeffersonian Democracy named after him, and penning a famous document or two, he served as Governor of Virginia for three years before becoming VP and then President after defeating John Adams.  There’s no arguing that Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable and intelligent man, with an amazing gift for the written word.  But to look at the major events of his presidential administration, I have to say he may have done more harm than good.  Among the good was the Louisiana Purchase and commissioning the Lewis and Clark expedition.  The bad included being the author of the words “all men are created equal” but doing little to eliminate slavery as an institution, and only freeing his own slaves in his will, upon his death.  He chose during his administration to suspend all trade with England and France (as American sailors were being captured in great numbers by British navy ships and forced into service for the Crown) which sunk the country into an awful economic state.  This trade war eventually led to the War of 1812 with Britain, possibly the closest our country came to collapse.  Great man?  Legendary?  I’ll say yes.  Good president?  Against every ounce of my being, against the fabled greatness, I’m going to say, no.  So…. EE: yes; Good: no.

#4 — James Madison.  He mostly wrote the Constitution, and as a US Representative helped establish the first ten amendments to the Constitution, more commonly known as the Bill of Rights.  He was Secretary of State under Jefferson.  But, according to me, no “executive experience”.  Most notable during his presidency was the War of 1812 with Britain.  Details aside, the U.S. won and remained an independent nation.  Rousing success, if you ask me, even if he bungled a lot of it, and even if Britain was a bit distracted by France at the time.  His policies also led to a stronger military and growing economic freedom and prosperity.  Maybe he wasn’t a super duper fabulous president, but I think he made the most of the situations presented him.  So…. EE: no; Good: yes.

Damn, this is taking a long time to get through each one.  But I shall persevere!!  More to come!

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6 responses to “Does “executive experience” equate to Presidential success? Part 1

  1. I agree with not counting VP as executive experience. John Adams himself felt it was a useless, powerless position. I agree with GW being a good president. He also refused to run beyond 2 terms, which set an excellent precedent broken only by FDR.

    As much as John Adams is my favorite founding father, I do not believe he was more than a mediocre president. Yes, he prevented war with France, but he also signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which ignored the Bill of Rights. Adams was a brilliant man who had, arguably, the best moral compass of any of the founding fathers, but a good president, I don’t think he was.

    Jefferson ran on a platform of curbing the power of the federal government in favor of states’ rights, yet he exceeded the power of the presidency as it was defined in his time. The Louisiana Purchase was not something the president should have been able to do.

    I’m glad you are doing this, as I went to bed last night thinking the exact same thing. Certainly the current president, who came in with executive experience, has not been a rousing success (to put it mildly). Lincoln, on the other hand, who was a lawyer, state legislator, and one-term Representative before being elected to the presidency, was brilliant and one of the shining stars of the executive branch.

    On to Monroe…

  2. I grappled a bit with the Alien and Sedition Acts. (I didn’t want to turn each president into a huge essay, so I didn’t mention it.) One redeeming thing about the Acts were that they weren’t permanent… they had expiration dates. He never intended to them to be forever. But I decided avoiding a war that would have decimated us as a country won out, and thusly gave his presidency the overall ‘good’ rating. Had he not avoided that war, we might be writing this in French right now.

  3. JFK and Abraham Lincoln both Presidents without executive experience. But really what impact does executive experience of V.P. candidate Palin have as mayor of an outpost highway berg of 7000, gov. of a state with population of about 600,000 and her in depth work with the PTA .

  4. I’ll quibble here and there.

    1. Washington was a genius at business. He got significant money from his marriage to Martha Custis, but he built on that enormously. One quick example of his acumen: In 1765, he tired of being at the mercy of London tobacco merchants and the London tobacco exchange. So he got out of tobacco altogether, and farmed only crops that he could sell on the local market or export himself without the British interfering — wheat and other grains, meats, etc. In this way he got rich, quick.

    2. As to Jefferson’s doing nothing to end slavery, remember that there was a clause in the Constitution that prohibited any mention of the issue in Congress until 1809. Jefferson served as president from 1801 to 1809. Plus, I think you give too little weight to the Louisiana Purchase, an executive play that was very much extra-Constitutional, and brilliant.

  5. VP should count, EE is defined as being top OR #2 in running something.

  6. Avi, that might be true in business, but in politics, our VP is not the second in command for running the country. The VP has as much power as the President lets him have, and historically that isn’t much (if any) at all. They get to break ties in the Senate. Whoo frickin’ hoo.

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