Does experience lead to better president?

Published 8:59 pm Tuesday, February 16, 2021

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As we head through Presidents’ Day Weekend, we have a new U.S. President, Joe Biden, who could count on a wealth of experience, which may have given him an edge over his rivals. But does having more political experience lead to presidential effectiveness?

Last semester, for the final exam, I gave my U.S. government students an option: they could write a third essay, or do a little research outside of the classroom to test this very hypothesis.  Their research answers might surprise you.

Several of these students who opted for a little extra work looked up how many years each U.S. President had served in Congress, as a member of the House of Representatives, a U.S. Senator, a Governor, or even a U.S. Vice-President.  Then they focused on the top five presidents and bottom five presidents as rated by a panel of historians, assembled by C-SPAN in 2000, before George W. Bush took office. So Bush Jr., Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden aren’t part of this particular study.

Of the top five, Abraham Lincoln only served a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, as did George Washington. Franklin D. Roosevelt was New York’s Governor for a term. Teddy Roosevelt also had a term as New York Governor (two-years for him) before becoming Vice-President in 1901, the same year he replaced the assassinated President William McKinley.  Harry Truman served a decade in the U.S. Senate and a short time as Vice-President. 

Of the bottom five, James Buchanan had a lengthy resume, with 20 years in Congress, while Andrew Johnson was in office for 18 years (14 in Congress, 4 as Governor). Franklin Pierce was in Congress for nine years, while Warren G. Harding was in Congress for six years. William Henry Harrison did not have any political experience by these measures. 

Of course, these measures don’t include other elected office (state legislature), cabinet experience, being a territorial governor, or military or business experience.  But just as Washington’s military experience doesn’t appear, neither does Buchanan’s service as Secretary of State.

For the best U.S. Presidents, my students (Andrew Harris, Alexander Tucker, Andrew Padovano, Kat Juskus and Andrew Cunningham) found that their average political experience was 4.2 years before becoming U.S. President while those judged by historians to be the worst averaged 10.6 years of political experience before Inauguration Day.

Reducing one’s arrogance about one’s own knowledge, and building a capable team, might be more important for a U.S. President than personal experience or expertise.