The national presidential election has lately revolved around the notion of experience. What kinds of experience matter? Romney wants voters to believe that business experience is paramount. He touts his own resume; Romney has even proposed a constitutional amendment requiring at least three years of business experience before one can qualify for the ballot. Obama, meanwhile, has been trying to argue that Romney’s experience at an investment firm is completely unrelated to the kinds of economic decisions that must be made as president.
So does experience matter–in particular business experience?
History says no, although to be fair not many have had any experience in business at all. Here is the list of presidents since 1900 who had significant business experience:
Herbert Hoover was easily the most successful businessman to ever be elected president, having personally made a fortune growing a mining empire in Western Australia. During World War I, he became a world-renowned philanthropist for his work in providing food to refugees displaced by the fighting, and in negotiating treaties during the war to make sure that basic food could pass through the front lines and reach starving people. He brought all of that business and organization experience with him to the presidency, used it to oversee the start of the Great Depression, and has gone down as one of our worst presidents.
Warren G. Harding was a newsman by trade, and successfully built the Marion Daily Star into the dominant newspaper in Marion, Ohio, certainly displaying good business acumen. Harding died in office, before the numerous investigations against him led to what would have likely been his impeachment.
Harry Truman worked in a hat store in Kansas City for awhile, although without much success.
LBJ ran a radio station in Austin, Texas, although the station was really there to fuel his political ambitions, and he never put a lot of his own time or energy into managing it.
Richard Nixon was partner at a law firm during the mid 1960s, between his stints as Vice President and President. Don’t know if that would count as business experience or not.
Jimmy Carter ran a farm, which clearly requires at least a modest amount of business acumen.
George H.W. Bush served as president of, and then founded, a succession of successful small Texas oil companies that were subsidiaries of a larger company on which his father served on the board. He’s clearly the second most successful business man on this list.
George W. Bush followed in his father’s footsteps in the oil business, although with much less success. His most successful business venture was when he was brought on as the front-man for a Texas Rangers ownership group which convinced the City of Arlington, Texas to build a new baseball stadium, thereby substantially increasing the value of the team before the ownership group sold it.
Eight presidents with business experience. The only ones to serve a full two terms were George W. Bush, who didn’t exactly leave office as a popular president, and Harry Truman. Only Truman could be considered to have had a truly successful presidency, although we might give LBJ partial credit for getting the most done (and being the most controversial) of perhaps any president ever. (Seriously: Welfare, Medicaid, Medicare, Civil Rights Act, The Vietnam War, and the modern US-Israeli relationship all date to his presidency.) Meanwhile, most of the lauded presidents of the last century (Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Wilson, Reagan, Eisenhower) had no appreciable business experience at all. The two Roosevelts were lawyers who were interested in public service from the moment they entered law school, Wilson was a political scientist and an academic, Eisenhower was a general, and Reagan an actor and union leader. (Yes, the Screen Actor’s Guild is a union.)
So business experience doesn’t seem to matter–if anything, it seems to be a detriment. Although there are three caveats I should mention now, all of which I hope to address in future posts:
1) There are many different kinds of business experience, some of which many be more relevant than others.
2) Political experience isn’t a particularly good measure of success either.
3) Voters don’t seem to care about whether or not you’ve had business experience.