Monday, December 17, 2007

The Myth of the Importance of Executive Experience

Is a governorship better training than a career in the Senate?

A website called infoplease has a convenient list of all the presidents' previous job experience. Here is my summary of the last hundred years:
Non-executives: Ford, Nixon, LBJ, JFK, Truman, Harding.

High-level Executives: Bush W, Clinton, Bush HW, Reagan, Carter, Eisenhower*, FDR, Hoover, Coolidge, Wilson, Taft, TR.

(Methodology: Non-executive jobs: Senator, Vice President. Executive: Governor, Cabinet Secretary, Supreme Allied Commander, Director of CIA.)

I don't see any correlation between executive experience and competent presidency. Do you?



*Eisenhower gets bonus points for his super-awesome previous title of Supreme Allied Commander. "President" sounds like a step down.

12 comments:

Lawyer-Wearing-Yarmulka said...

Ford, Nixon, LBJ, and Truman were all VP's. Not exactly a ton of executive experience there, but still an infinite amount more than being a Senator.

The bottom line is hardly anyone goes from the Senate to directly to the Oval Office.

Face it- Obama's too green. He should have ran for Governor of Illinois, instead of running for Senate.

Jewish Atheist said...

LWY:

Can you elaborate on your claim that VP is (infinitely!) more executive experience than Senator? Because I don't see it at all, except for Cheney.

The bottom line is hardly anyone goes from the Senate to directly to the Oval Office.

It's rare, but not unheard of. Pierce, Harrison, Lincoln, Garfield, Harding, and JFK all went from Congress to the presidency. So even if you count VP as executive experience, we still have 6 out of 42, or about 14%, with no high-level executive experience.

Anyway, whether it's common or not isn't as relevant as whether those who make the jump are worse presidents than those with more executive experience. I think it's pretty clear that they aren't.

Lawyer-Wearing-Yarmulka said...

The argument in favor of executive experience isn't that they make better Presidents. It's that they make better presidential candidates. There's a reason why only 2 people in the past 100+ years have gone from Congress to the White House. People assume that someone with EE is more qualified to be president. Thus it makes more sense to nominate someone with EE, then to spend all your time claiming that EE doesn't really matter, which in turn just reminds everyone that your candidate doesn't have EE.

A person can be an incompetent President with tons of EE, and a person can be a very competent President with no EE. But people like seeing their President have some sort of EE- it's better to have less on the job training, I guess.

Jewish Atheist said...

So you're basically agreeing with me that it's a myth but are skeptical that it can be changed?

Ezzie said...

Assuming LWY and I are thinking alike (!?), it's not a myth. It's that people with EE are more likely to make good Presidents than people without it... which is why they make better candidates.

That there are non-executives who can still be great Presidents is undoubtedly true; that there are executives who can be horrible is as well. It's why you can have a country elect someone like JFK or Truman - they think they can do it despite the lack of EE - or screw up with someone like Carter.

Also, you'd have to figure out who each ran against. JFK beat Ford - there was no choice of someone with EE that election, at least at that point. (I'm not checking the primaries!)

Lawyer-Wearing-Yarmulka said...

So you're basically agreeing with me that it's a myth but are skeptical that it can be changed?

No, I don't think it's a myth. The number of those who went straight from Congress to the White House is too small to make a determination, especially if you start from the modern presidency. (I'd start that with FDR)

It's possible for someone without EE to be a great president, but like any other job, you want the person to have some relevant past experience. Being a governor or VP is much close to to being President than being in the Senate. The skills you need to be an effective Senator are different from the skills you need to be an effective President.

Also, you'd have to figure out who each ran against. JFK beat Ford - there was no choice of someone with EE that election, at least at that point. (I'm not checking the primaries!)

Ummm...JFK beat Nixon, who was then the VP.

Jewish Atheist said...

Ezzie:

It's that people with EE are more likely to make good Presidents than people without it... which is why they make better candidates.

That's exactly the claim I'm challenging. What do you base it on? Just intuition?


LWY:

Being a governor or VP is much close to to being President than being in the Senate.

Governor and VP are completely different jobs. Most VPs don't really do anything as an executive.

The skills you need to be an effective Senator are different from the skills you need to be an effective President.

True, but being a Senator isn't exactly completely different, either. Both work on national issues by being good politicians. Governors, on the other hand, might not even know much about national issues.

For example, Obama was on the Senate Foreign Relations; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; and Veterans' Affairs Committees. That seems like good and quite relevant experience for a presidential candidate. Certainly on foreign policy, there's no way a governorship can compete with a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Comrade Kevin said...

I see your point. However, I have to admit I find Executive Experience versus Non-Executive Experience to be an oversimplification at best.

What causes a person to reach the office of President involves a variety of converging factors which include, but are not limited to, luck, capitalizing on the mistakes of opponents, timing, and responding properly to the negative allegations of other candidates in the race.

The fact that most successful candidates in recent memory have been governors has, I believe, more to do with the above.

Jack's Shack said...

There is a big difference between the modern president and those of the past.

Ezzie said...

I swear I meant Nixon above. Wow... bad switch.

I just remember watching the Nixon-JFK debate in Gov. class in HS. Our teacher noted how people who watched it gave JFK the win by a mile; people who listened on the radio thought it was quite even. Shows how much is content, how much is how one comes across.

Ezzie said...

That's exactly the claim I'm challenging. What do you base it on? Just intuition?

Logic. People who have had to make difficult decisions, to lead, etc. and have done so - well - have an advantage, period. (I'm assuming if they didn't do well they would be laughed at as candidates.) They've functioned in a very similar position with similar responsibilities with similar bureaucracy, and been successful. It's reasonable to assume they would do the same. There's no basis for that assumption for someone without that experience.

C said...

What this list proves is that the executive experience vs. non-exec experience, despite possessing a certain plausible ring, is utterly meaningless.

Is either one of these groups obviously superior to the other? Not that I can tell.

Besides, your judgment of who's a good president is unavoidably freighted with ideological "priors."

The presidents that appear to me to have done a good job are: Taft, Coolidge, Reagan, and Clinton.

The ones that were disasters were TR, Wilson, LBJ.

All the others are ambiguous.

YMMV

Whether a President had "executive experience" has no predictive value.

The worst president of my lifetime--I'm 28--was George W. Bush. The best was Bill Clinton. Both had previously been governors. It's a meaningless category.