Do Legislators Make Bad Presidents?
Let's see if there is evidence to support the assertion.
It is frequently argued that legislators make bad presidents, and therefore we, as a country, are better off electing governors and vice presidents rather than senators and representatives to the White Houses. This position has emerged in a couple of recent posts here at OTB of late, the most recent being in the comment thread of one of Doug Mataconis’ posts. Indeed, Doug himself wrote in a the comments:
Harding was a horrible Executive, which is typical of legislators
Now, I have no interest in a debate over Harding, per se, but that comment itself (which was made in other posts and is a fairly common assertion) got me to thinking: to what degree is this actually true? My initial thought was that this notion is popular at the moment because the current president was a Senator before becoming president, and ergo that can be used to explain his behavior. Still, I really do have to wonder as to the degree to which it is empirically true that legislators make bad executives (although one supposed someone has studied the question). We do know, as a side note, that legislators have been known to make extremely effective executive in parliamentary systems, given that by definition all executives in such systems are members of the legislature. Examples of effective executives of this type with whom American readers would likely be quite familiar: Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, as well as any Israeli or German PM one would care to name.
But, one could retort, those systems are rather different than the US’s separation of powers scheme. Fair enough for the sake of discussion, so let’s look at the US presidency.
To return the bolded portion of Doug’s quote from above, we are left with two basic questions:
1) What constitutes a “horrible executive” (or even a “bad” one), and
2) What constitutes a “legislator”?
The first can be a rather subjective (or, at, least start fights). Still, if we look at a large number of rankings and aggregate the scores, we can get a pretty good idea about expert consensus on such rankings. Luckily, Wikipedia (yes, I know) did the leg work on this and compiled responses from 17 different polls (although not all cover all presidents). It is an imperfect tool, but it is sufficient for this conversation (and better than just one person’s gut reactions). I have included the aggregated ranking in the table below. Note: more recent presidents are not included in all surveys and Obama has only been in one. This factor, plus the fact that he has yet to serve out his term makes his ranking the least useful (indeed, the ranking for Obama should be ignored for the most part given these factors) but I have included it nevertheless).
The second issue is interesting: are we talking about presidents who only served in legislatures? Are we talking about ones whose last political job was in the legislature? What if the politician has both executive and legislative experience? Does having executive experience negate (if you will) the alleged ill effects of legislative experience?
I have gone through the basic bios of the 43 men who have served as President of the United States and have noted their basic career path information as it pertain to this question.
I have coded each with Executive, Legislative and Other experience. The bolded letter is the type of position held prior to being in the White House.
Executive experience is coded as VP (Vice President), G (Governor), and O (Other Executive, e.g., cabinet level service or ambassadorial position).
Legislative experience is coded as S (Senator), HR (US Representative), SL (State Legislature), CC (Continental Congress) and PC (Philadelphia Convention)
Other experience is coded as M (Military) or J (Judicial)
We can break this down in various ways.
There are a limited number of presidents who had narrow experience (i.e., only exec or only legislative). Indeed, there are only 16 total, with 10 having only executive experience and six having only legislative experience. As such, we do not have a lot of observations to work with.
Executive only (N=10)
Arthur, Cleveland, Roosevelt (T), Wilson, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt (FD), Reagan, Clinton, Bush (GW)
The rankings for these presidents are as follows: 28, 19, 5, 6, 31, 29, 2, 17, 30, 34 (which is mixed bag at best).
Legislative only (N=6)
Pierce, Lincoln, Garfield, Harrison (B), Kennedy, Obama
The aggregate rankings for these presidents are: 40, 1, 29, 33, 11 and incomplete.* While, on balance not a spectacular showing, the presence of the consensus #1 on the list, as well as another just out of the top 10 makes it difficult to make the argument that we have much of a pattern here.
The average ranking for exec only is 20.1 and the average ranking for legis only is 19.0. As such, if we are going to base a conclusion on this small sample we can conclude that either a) background doesn’t really matter or b) executive only is worse than legislative only.
Other ways to break down the numbers are as follows, which looks at what the most recent position held by the president in question before assuming office.
President who came directly from VP (N=12)
Adams (J), Jefferson, Van Buren, Tyler, Filmore, Johnson, Arthur, Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Bush (GHW)
Average ranking: 23.67
Presidents who came directly from Governorship (N=13)
Polk, Hayes, Cleveland, McKinley, Taft, Wilson, Coolidge, Roosevelt (T), Roosevelt (FD), Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush (GW)
Average ranking: 19.08
President who came directly from Other Executive, Other Legislative or Other (N=7)
Washington, Madison, Monroe, Adams (JQ), Harrison (WH), Buchanan, Hoover
Average ranking: 16.86
Presidents who came directly from the military (N=3)
Taylor, Grant, Eisenhower
Average ranking: 26.67
Presidents who came directly from Senate (N=6)
Jackson, Pierce, Harrison (B), Harding, Kennedy, Obama
Average ranking: 27.0 (excluding Obama)
Presidents who came directly from the House of Representatives (N=2)
Average ranking: 15.0
I think that a clear pattern is extremely hard to ascertain, to be honest. And, of course, more sophisticated analysis could be done on this topic. Indeed, basing these rankings solely on sequence of career is problematic, even if it does fit the general public narrative on the question at hand.
Granted, based on the limited of observations, we do see that the poorest performing sub-group are those that came directly from the Senate (with an average similar to those for president who came straight from the military) and yet at the same time, the best performing group is the House group, but given that N=2 and one of the N in question is ranked #1 overall, this skews that result. Interestingly, one of the higher performing groups is the “Other” category.
One last thing along these lines that struck as worth noting. In Doug’s post he noted a proposal from Glenn Reynolds (made back in 2005):
My own proposal for reform would be a bit different: Make anyone who serves in the Senate ineligible to run for President. That wouldn’t be much of a loss, really — Senators do very badly in the Presidential election business anyway.
First, I am not sure what problem this is supposed to solve.
Second, if that rule were in effect, the following persons would never have been president: Monroe, Adams (JQ), Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison (WH), Pierce, Buchanan, Johnson (A), Harrison (B), Harding, Kennedy, Johnson (LB), Nixon, and Obama.
While one may have gripes with any number of the above-listed individuals, I am not sure why they, as a class unique from others, constitute an argument for a blanket rule to forbid Senators from seeking the White House. Further, such a proposal ignores the simple fact that if being a Senator forestalled one from running for the presidency, then that would simply mean that a lot of politicians simply would not pursue a senate seat. As one changes rules, one changes behavior.
In conclusion, I would argue that an actual examination of the career paths of presidents provide no compelling evidence to suggest that a specific experience with executive or legislative office equates to explaining the quality of a given presidency.
*Obama is 14th in the table, but that is based on one survey and less than two years in office. As such, he really deserves a incomplete.