Tag Archives: U.S. history

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!)

Executive experience makes a good president? Part 10

#33 – Harry S. Truman.  Truman gained the majority of his political experience as a U.S. Senator, representing his home state of Missouri.  When he left office, he had an abysmal approval rating (lower than Nixon’s right after the Watergate scandal broke).  His presidency contained a number of controversial moves and decisions: the dropping of the atomic bomb, the Korean War, the support of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, his dismissal of General MacArthur, and his weak response to Sen. McCarthy’s efforts to press the Communist panic button all give fodder to historians and make Truman’s presidency quite controversial.  However, despite these things, he is regularly ranked in the top ten of greatest presidents, and he made a number of significant contributions, including but not limited to expanding civil rights, expanding social welfare programs, his successful handling of the Soviet union post-WWII, and the successful transitioning of the U.S. from a time of war to a time of peace.  Therefore, I say… EE: no; Good: yes.

#34: Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Eisenhower was a four-star general and war hero during WWII.  After the war he served as president of Columbia University, and for a couple years before being elected president he was commander of the European NATO forces.  So, definitely executive experience.  Eisenhower’s presidency was mediocre at best.  While he presided over a peaceful time in America’s history, he left to his successor a raging Cold War and no test-ban treaty to end the testing of nuclear weapons.  While he did have a hand in finally ending the reign of persecution of Eugene McCarthy, he still sat idly by for years while McCarthy abused his power and conducted the most notorious witch hunt of the 20th century.  In matters of civil rights, it has been argued by Eisenhower’s main biographer, Stephen Ambrose, that Eisenhower wasn’t a ” …reluctant leader — he was no leader at all.”  In short, Ike’s presidency was largely characterized by his willingness to do nothing.  It kept us out of wars, to be sure, but it created and prolonged many more problems.  So… EE: yes; Good: no.

#35 — John F. Kennedy.  Kennedy’s political experience was in Congress, first as a Representative and then as a Senator from the state of Massachusetts.   Kennedy’s presidency has been the subject of mixed reviews… he made lots of aspirational speeches and promises, but his assassination deprived him of the time necessary to follow through.  Though his presidency was relatively short at just under three years, it contained a couple big failures, such as the Bay of Pigs, and a couple of pretty good successes, such as a test ban treaty and the formation of the Peace Corps.  Regardless, Kennedy is often ranked as a top-five president, most likely because of the strength of his leadership and charisma, and the inspirational nature of his words.  So, let’s say… EE: no; Good: yes.

Less than ten to go!  Oh I can nearly taste the finish.  Later!

Executive Experience = Good President? Part 9

You can click on “Executive Experience:  Is It Important?” to read the first eight parts to this series!!


#29 – Warren G. Harding.  Harding’s political experience include state senator, lieutenant governor and US Senator, all for Ohio.  By trade he was a newspaper publisher.  By all accounts he was a dismal president.  Not only does he have to follow in the visionary footsteps of Woodrow Wilson, but as a man himself he was directionless, lacked a moral compass, and simply had no vision for his presidency.  He died while in office, after a week of some sort of weird ailment, and his wife refused to allow an autopsy.  Thus, theories abound.  But none of the theories can turn him into a decent president.  So… EE: no; Good: no.

#30 – Calvin Coolidge.  He was Harding’s VP and before that, governor of Massachusetts.  Generally speaking, it seems many of Coolidge’s policies as president helped bring on the Great Depression.  He favored big business and allowed monopolies to carry on unchecked; he refused to provide aid to the agricultural fields; he provided huge tax breaks to corporations and wealthy individuals.  He was wary of involvement in foreign arrangements and alliances, making the US economy more isolated.  Over his presidency, he let too many eggs get stored in too few baskets, and it came back to bite the country… hard.  So… EE: yes; Good: no.

#31 – Herbert Hoover.  Hoover was a mining engineer and eventually started his own mining company.  He was also a noted humanitarian before entering politics.  He entered the political fray by becoming Secretary of Commerce under Harding and Coolidge.  He is the first president so far who gets his sole “executive experience” from the business world.  Hoover for a long time had an incredibly horrible reputation regarding what was viewed as his completely inept handling of the Great Depression.  More recently, historians have recognized that in reality, there was little that he (or anyone else) could have done to stem the tide of the Depression or turn it around, and that our entry into WWII was the reason the economy lifted, and nothing done by Roosevelt.  Hoover also held steadfastly to some very noble beliefs during the Depression… though they weren’t of much benefit.  Where he is faulted nowadays is with not doing more to help ease the suffering and hardships that the Depression brought to throngs of people, resistant as he was to spending federal money to stimulate the economy or provide relief.  So… EE: yes; Good: no.

#32 — Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  FDR garnered his executive experience through three years as the governor of New York.  Although his presidency is marred by a couple issues, such as the interment  of Japanese and German Americans during WWII and, more controversially, not taking decisive, earlier action to end the Holocaust atrocities, FDR’s presidency is generally seen as perhaps one of the best, ever.  His New Deal programs, handling of the Great Depression and WWII, and records four consecutive election wins demonstrate his success and veneration by the American people.  So… EE: yes; Good: yes.

I could keep going…. but ice cream calls.  Stay tuned!

Does “executive experience” equate to a good president? Part 4

#11 — James K. Polk.  Polk was both Speaker of the House and Governor of Tennessee.  He was trained as a lawyer and also helped run his family’s successful plantation.  The Polk presidency is generally looked upon as a good one, but one of missed opportunities.  Under his administration, the United States added territory that would later make up most of our western states, including Washington, California, Oregon, etc.  Part of that territory was gained through the skillful directing of the Mexican-American War.  He was able to reduce tariffs and the economy prospered.  One source of contention is that he did little to stem the spread of slavery, and in fact grossly underestimated how his support of letting slavery expand into the newly acquired territories would fan the flames of emotion in the country.  He also attempted to purchase Cuba from Spain, but the offer (upwards of nearly $3 billion in today’s dollars) was rejected.  (Imagine the difference in the Cold War if that transaction had gone through?!?)  But overall he seems to have been productive, masterful at negotiations and he successfully achieved Manifest Destiny and secured our border with Mexico.  Perhaps he lacked some foresight, but it’s easier to see that now, in retrospect, than it probably was at the time.  So, I would say:  EE: yes; Good: yes.

#12 — Zachary Taylor.  Attained the rank of Major General in the Army and was a national war hero.  Having never held political office or even bothered with telling people his political leanings, it was pretty much a crap shoot when he won office to see what he would do.  It turns out he was pretty against the expansion of slavery, which incited the South.  But then he went and died of suspected cholera and never really got to see his policies through, as his veep, Millard Fillmore, took over and supported a somewhat different philosophy.  Had Taylor lived and won a re-election to see his policies through, it might have stemmed the spread of slavery and even, possibly, prevent the Civil War.  Besides that, though, he was fairly mediocre… scaled back on the pursuit of Manifest Destiny a great deal, made a treaty with Britain with unnecessarily large concessions, and no one in Congress took him seriously, so he couldn’t otherwise get much done.  All that aside, I’m simply inclined to just not count him, between being unable to determine if he was a really good president, being undecided whether to count his army career as “executive experience” and the shortness of his presidency.

#13 – Millard Fillmore.  He was a VP, a U.S. Senator, a state senator (in NY) and the NY State Comptroller.  Lots of political experience to be sure, but no executive experience.  He took over after Taylor’s death.  He supported the Compromise of 1850, which was a complex set of laws but to summarize, it made California a free state, allowed the possibility of Utah and New Mexico to enter the Union as slave states, and a couple other provisos that attempted to appease all sides but instead inflamed them all instead.  The Compromise did serve to probably delay what was now a nearly inevitable Civil War, so it can be credited for that.  Millard Fillmore also has a number of other accomplishments as part of his legacy – establishing trade with Japan, and presiding over a great number of foreign relations successes in his short tenure.  Common belief seems to be that his presidency was unremarkable, but given the tempestuousness of the times he found himself as President, it seems to me he did a pretty decent job.  He was not nominated to run for a second term more because the Whig party was in disarray more than for his popularity at the time.  So… I might be in the minority here, but…  EE: no; good: yes.

OK, I need to go to bed.  30 to go.  Yikes.

Does “executive experience” equate to Presidential success? Part 3

You can click on the page “Executive Experience: Is it important?” above to see all the previous posts on this topic.

#8 – Martin Van Buren. He was a Secretary of State and a Vice President, which do not qualify him… but was governor of New York state for like 3 months. So that counts! Van Buren was instrumental in building the political system as it exists today, which is quite noteworthy. Historians, however, do not hold him, as a President, in very high regard. The United States went through a really bad economic depression during his tenure, and his insistence on clinging to his strong beliefs in Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democratic ideals prevented him from taking actions as President to ease the depression. Also, despite his leadership in the political arena, he somehow could not manage to get the Congress to pass any sort of measure to try to ease the depression until three years into it. His impotency seem to be his greatest presidential legacy. So… EE: yes. Good: no.

#9 — William Henry Harrison. I simply don’t have the heart to try to count him. It’s way too hard to assess the value of his presidency when he died 32 days into it. Perhaps had he kept his coat on at his inauguration I’d have more to write about. Thus WHH gets a pass. What’s interesting to note is that beyond this reputation regarding his unfortunate demise, I realized I didn’t know a thing about him. He became a national hero as a general in the War of 1812, and before that has been governor of the Indian territory (present-day Illinois and Indiana) during which he managed to finagle the Native Americans out of thousands of acres of land for little to no compensation. His presidential campaign was notable for two reasons. First, it was the first ‘modern’ political campaign. Although WHH was from what might have been the wealthiest family in Virginia, his handlers managed to create an image of him as a commoner, a man of and for the people. Second, he was the first Whig elected to office.

#10 – John Tyler. Tyler was the first VP to take over the role of president because of the president’s death. Before his 32 days as VP, his experience included being a lawyer, governor, and senator. It may be Tyler’s greatest presidential accomplishment that he managed to become president after WHH’s death at all; there was a lot of confusion over the wording in the Constitution regarding the succession of the veep should the president die, and not everyone thought that it meant Tyler should become the de facto president. His presidency also included the entry of Texas as a state… and little else. He was stubborn and uncompromising and thus just didn’t get much done. Plus as a slave-owning aristocrat he was mostly out of touch with everyone in the country except other slave-owning aristocrats. So… EE: yes; Good: no.

Ten down, 33 to go! But alas I must pick up Lane from preschool.