Experience and Presidential Performance

Sarah Palin seems to have a thin resume for a Vice Presidential candidate. Should we care? I have no informed opinion about whether this pick will ultimately raise or lower the odds of John McCain becoming president, and will only focus on her potential future performance in office. Further, if we were to stipulate that John McCain would serve out his potential term(s) as president, then I don’t think her resume would matter much – I think that it is uncontroversial to say that the key issue is what her resume indicates about her potential performance if she were to become president. Under these assumptions, another way of asking our question is to ask if and how previous experience predicts subsequent presidential performance.

I decided to take a quick look at a simplified set of qualifications of the best and worst presidents in U.S. history. I used the Wall Street Journal 2005 presidential rankings to define performance (though what follows is robust to using various kinds of consensus combinations of other similar rankings). By this ranking, the top 5 presidents are Washington, Lincoln, FDR, Jefferson and TR; the bottom 5 are Buchanan, Harding, Pierce, Andrew Johnson and Fillmore.

In order to characterize pre-presidential experience, I’ve defined “Executive” experience specifically as a government seniormost executive (basically, governor of a state or supreme military commander, but excluding positions like vice president, cabinet member or subordinate general). I’ve defined “Legislative” experience as the national legislature – a U.S. senator of Member of the U.S. House of Representatives –but excluding tings service on a town council or in a state legislature.

Here are the Executive and Legislative backgrounds of the top 5:

Washington: Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army
Lincoln: Member of Congress
FDR: Governor of New York
Jefferson: Governor of Virginia; Delegate to the Congress of the Confederation
TR: Governor of New York

Here are the backgrounds of the bottom 5:

Buchanan: U.S Senator
Harding: U.S. Senator
Pierce: U.S. Senator; Member of Congress
Andrew Johnson: Member of Congress; Governor of Tennessee; U.S. Senator
Fillmore: Member of Congress

It’s kind of striking that 4 of the top 5 had Executive experience (with the obvious, and towering, exception of Abraham Lincoln), while 4 of the bottom 5 did not. In fact, the best presidents have tended to have predominantly Executive experience, and the worst presidents predominantly Legislative experience.

In order to extend this comparison beyond just the top and bottom, I divided all of the ranked presidents into two roughly equally-sized buckets: (1) Have Executive experience (n = 19), and (2) Do not have Executive experience (n = 21). The average ranking for those with Executive experience is 16, and for those without it is 25.

Now, there are many obvious problems with concluding form this that we should only choose presidents with Executive experience. Correlation is not causality. The qualifications for president in 1808 were probably different than they are in 2008. This is a ridiculously simplistic definition if experience. And so on. But it sure is suggestive that demonstrated success as the leader (in a “buck stops here” sense) of a large government enterprise tends to be a characteristic of successful presidents. Focusing your career on debating and voting on laws, not so much.

Palin has Executive experience, but it has been for less than two years in a state with a smaller population than Columbus, Ohio. Jefferson, TR and FDR were all governors of the most important state in the union during their respective eras. Thomas Jefferson also had a few other accomplishments under his belt. Her preparation and experience are not remotely in the same realm as any of these people.

Sarah Palin may turn out to be an outstanding choice for vice president, and if called to serve, may turn out to be one of America’s greatest presidents. Such outcomes might even be reliably predicted for her by those with much more information about her than the dry facts of her experience. But it is the case that she does not have the background Executive experiences of our most successful presidents.

Of course, what this simple analysis also calls to mind is the comparable experience base for the other three members of both major tickets:

McCain: U.S. Senator; Member of Congress; No Executive experience
Obama: U.S Senator; No Executive experience
Biden: U.S. Senator; No Executive experience

Sarah Palin seems to be in good company.