Does executive experience make a good president? The results!

I spent many an evening compiling all my results. All the links for all the individual detailed presidential analysis are here.

Now I acknowledge before I go any further that this exercise was purely subjective. If a hundred people did the same thing I did, they numbers would turn out a hundred different ways. Different presidents would be good, or not good, and the presidents’ experience could be counted as “executive” in ways I didn’t consider or excluded. This isn’t fact, it’s simply my opinion. My overtired, worn-out, bleeding-heart liberal (but fiscally somewhat conservative) opinion. I also want to thank the internet, without which I could never have put this together. Specifically, Wikipedia and all the relevant cited sources in each president’s article, and the excellent essays of the Miller Center of Public Affairs were especially helpful.

To review and sum up, I wanted to look at each president and see if their “executive experience” was a strong predictor of their success as president … or if their lack of executive experience was a predictor of a poor presidency. I had a null hypothesis — that being that more presidents that had executive experience (or lacked it) would be good presidents (or not good, if they didn’t have executive experience). The alternative hypothesis would be non-expected results… more presidents who didn’t have executive experience being good presidents (or with executive experience being bad presidents). I decided “executive experience” would be someone who’d served in the executive branch as a governor, but not vice president. A general in the armed forces counted, as did entrepreneurial experience by running a company, or presiding over a college. I went president by president, summing up their experience and whether history has shown them to be a good president.

There were three presidents who I didn’t score because of the brevity of their term, and Grover Cleveland only got scored once, even though he served two non-successive terms. What that means is though there were 43 presidents so far, I’ve only got 39 actual presidencies represented here on out.

I ended up with a pretty even match-up — 21 good presidents and 18 not-good presidents. There were also 24 with executive experience and 15 without executive experience. You get a matrix that looks like this:

When it comes to the null and alternative hypothesis… well, things start getting interesting. Out of 39 presidencies, ones where either a good president had executive experience or a bad president didn’t have it, 16, or 41% of presidents, met the null hypothesis. That means 23, or about 59% of presidents, met the alternative hypothesis. If executive experience were a good predictor of success as a president, I’d expect the percentage of presidencies meeting the null hypothesis at LEAST over 50%… and we didn’t even get there! A very safe conclusion from these numbers is that executive experience is simply NOT a strong predictor of success as a president. If my statistical analysis skills weren’t so rusty, and if I had Excel on this laptop and not just MS Works (which is basically good for making a grocery list and not much else) I could attempt to slap some real statistics on this, but I frankly don’t have the energy and the numbers mostly speak for themselves anyway, in my opinion. If anyone WOULD like to work out some statistical conclusions, be my guest! I’d be happy to supply my original spreadsheet and anything else you may need.

Take a look at that 2×2 matrix by rows, focusing on the “executive experience” or “no executive experience” categorization. I’d say that based on this, if someone comes into office with executive experience, it’s basically a crap shoot whether or not they will be a good president. Without executive experience, however, odds are 2:1 that they WILL be a good president. I guess this is promising for both Obama and McCain, since neither have the executive experience the GOP is claiming makes Palin soooooo “qualified”. It would be interesting to do a multi-categorical analysis of all the presidents, looking at a number of factors to determine which factors were most predictive of presidential success. Maybe it’s a long congressional service. Or geography. Or education. Or personality traits. Or some combination therein. Or some other factor I am not thinking of.

Some interesting observations:

  • The largest of the four categories in the 2×2 is the category of presidents who had executive experience but were not good presidents. I don’t think with a proper statistical analysis that this category would stand out as significant in and of itself, but it just is interesting to look at and ponder.
  • Some of the most highly regarded “good” presidents were in the “no executive experience” category — Lincoln, Kennedy, and Truman stand out. So it’s not like the presidents with executive experience were all the really great presidents and the ones without were just OK.
  • Three of the most consistently ranked worst presidents — Pierce, Harding, and Buchanan — had no executive experience before entering office. So, while executive experience doesn’t mean any sort of guarantee of success, perhaps it at least helps ensure that a president isn’t going to be horribly, tremendously, stupendously awful.

In summary, I believe this executive experience talk is hogwash, and Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani and all the other Republiclones need to just shut their pieholes about it. Unless what they’re trying to say is “Hey, at least if Sarah Palin becomes president, she won’t be as terrible as Warren G. Harding.” (Wow, that would be a great campaign slogan!)


12 responses to “Does executive experience make a good president? The results!

  1. Sarah Palin’s foreign affairs experience. She looks out her window and sees Russia. I’m sorry, Sarah, that’s Canada.

  2. Thanks Lisa. That was not only ineresting and educational it was FUN…for the readers anyway.

  3. Oh, I had fun too. It just got a little tedious, and I started feeling pressure from my own self-imposed deadlines. Plus Frank was getting ornery that I was spending so much time on the computer to do it.

  4. Nice analysis for those of us interested in this whole debate over executive experience and its relevance to selecting a president. You lay out your assumptions so we can conclude whether, e.g., we agree with you that Richard Nixon was a successful president.

  5. Love the list, but…

    Woodrow Wilson was a racist, empiralist, anti-Democracy, red scare baiting, ku-kluking sheet-head:

    He ordered the unsuccessful invasion & occupation of Russia, Haiti/Dominican Republic (and enslavement by Marines of their people) and Mexico (twice).

    To call him a successful president is to further perpetuate the lie.

  6. Lisa,

    This is really interesting. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

    Not that it matters, but since I am a stats nerd, here is some statistical analysis of your results.

    In a statistical sense the null hypothesis would be that there was no difference in the proportion of good presidents between presidents with and without executive experience (i.e. executive experince does not make a difference). In this case the alternative hypothesis would be that experience makes a president more likely to be good.

    Using a Fisher’s Exact test we get a p-value of 0.32 meaning that 32% of the time you could get the above result due to chance. We cannot reject the null hypothesis and thus conclude that executive experience has no impact on the quality of the president (and actually it is trending the other direction).

    I don’t think I really added anything with this, but it was an interesting exercise.

  7. nice but I think Ike should’ve been good and Fillmore shouldn’t. My top 10 are Madison, Washington, Lincoln, Both Roosevelts, Truman, Eisenhower, J Adams, Reagan, and Kennedy. My bottom 10 are Jackson, GWB, Buchanan, Pierce, Fillmore, Tyler, Jefferson, A Johnson, Grant, and Carter.

  8. my vote for worst president is bush jr. my vote for best is lincoln.

  9. Jimmy Carter still holds the record of worst president of the last 50 years.

  10. New list
    Top 10
    Teddy Roosevelt
    John Adams
    I think Kennedy might have been a top tenner had he not died early.
    Bottom 10
    Andrew Johnson
    George W. Bush

    • I think Harding might have been higher on the worst list had he not died so early. BTW, loved the bit about “At least if Sarah Palin becomes president, she won’t be as bad as Warren G. Harding!” Also, I feel it should be noted that the presidents ranked after Harding, Buchanan, and Pierce on most historical rankings are Andrew Johnson and Grant, both of which you marked as having executive experience, so I don’t know about “at least EE is an indicator that they won’t be horribly, stupendously awful” thing.

  11. What a crock! LBJ was a good a president? well I guess if you consider bankrupting the country, sinking the country further into a foreign war with restraints to “not win it,” and sinking so low in popularity that he decides to not even ATTEMPT to run again then by all means. He was a wonderful success. Let’s not forget promising to eradicate the “poor” while starting programs that tripled the poverty rate, increased single parent households 1000 percent in minority communities and actually DECREASING the educational competency of high school graduates.

    And Calvin Coolidge was a failure? Really? I might argue a lack of attention to foreign policy but he he pulled the country out of a recession in less than 2 years and had the greatest increase of employment gains of nearly any President up until that time.

    I appreciate the effort though I really do.

    If you wanted to be more accurate, you should actually subdivide the Presidential disciplines of foreign policy, military, economic (especially employment), social welfare (results not legislation) and government debt/bureaucracy. Someone like FDR would score very high on his ability to lead, manage and orchestrate foreign policy while (correctly) being graded down on extending unemployment and the recession needlessly. Were it not for WW2 and the ability to have an unlimited debt ceiling, most believe a second worst depression would have been on it’s way.

    At least the title of your blog is honest.

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