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February 07, 2009

Presidential Resumes

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In my judgment, Barack Obama entered the presidency with the weakest resumé of any entering president starting with the 20th century. How troublesome this proves to be will be demonstrated by his performance over his presidency. In any case, character, talent and luck also bear on presidential success.

So, just for fun, I constructed a crude index of resumé strength and toss it out for your entertainment. (Please, Steve Sailer, don't hit me; I can think of many ways to refine it. This is just a blog post and not a Heritage or Brookings report.)

Here are the variables I use and their weight (in parentheses):

  1. Governor of large [5+ million in 2000] state (2 points)
  2. Governor of other state (1 point)
  3. Significant executive experience if never a governor (1)
  4. Significant non-governor/legislator dealings with legislation (1)
  5. Served in Congress or Senate (1)
  6. Extensive foreign affairs experience (1)
  7. Served as Vice President (1)

Other variables might have been included. And the weightings for the items above are indeed crude and fairly arbitrary. As can be seen, I consider experience as a large-state governor to be far more important than the others. This is because a governor has to be a leader and manager as well as being able to work with legislators -- doing all this well enough to merit attention as a potential president. In other words, governorship can be considered a mini-presidency (minus the foreign affairs aspect).

Anyway, here's how my "system" quantifies presidential resumes starting with Theodore Roosevelt, the first "new" 20th century president. Total points are first, in brackets, and qualifying items from the list above are in parentheses.

  • [3] T. Roosevelt (1, 7)
  • [2] Taft (3, 4)
  • [2] Wilson (1)
  • [1] Harding (5)
  • [3] Coolidge (1, 7)
  • [3] Hoover (3, 4, 6)
  • [2] F.D. Roosevelt (1)
  • [3] Truman (3, 5, 7)
  • [3] Eisenhower (3, 4, 6)
  • [1] Kennedy (5)
  • [2] Johnson (5, 7)
  • [2] Nixon (5, 7)
  • [2] Ford (5, 7)
  • [2] Carter (1)
  • [2] Reagan (1)
  • [4] Bush 41 (3, 5, 6, 7)
  • [1] Clinton (2)
  • [2] Bush 43 (1)
  • [1] Obama (5)

I'm doing much of this from memory, so correct me if you think I made errors.

Some might wonder about Eisenhower's score. Besides being a General (manager) he was Douglas MacArthur's key assistant when the general was Army chief of staff and head of the Philippine military. His Washington work under MacArthur involved many dealings with Congress. As commander of the European theater in WW2 and as NATO commander later, he dealt extensively in foreign affairs. In other words, Ike's background was stronger than many realize.

The clunky weighting system I used probably works worst for item seven, the vice-presidency. For example, Nixon served eight years in that office whereas Truman was VP for only a few weeks and famously knew nothing about the atom bomb until he became president. Ford and Teddy Roosevelt also were VP short-timers while Coolidge and Johnson did not serve a full term either.

George H.W. Bush happens to get the top score. His Wikipedia entry is here.



posted by Donald at February 7, 2009


This is interesting.

In my opinion, a serious problem with Obama that is related to his lack of experience is his arrogance. The man has advanced incredibly quickly from community activist to state legislator to Senator to President without having ever faced a real challenge or overcome a real problem. He is accustomed to adoring crowds who like him for what he symbolizes to them rather than for any demonstrated skill beyond making sonorous speeches. Anyone would become arrogant in the same circumstances. The temptation to believe that one can walk on water would be overwhelming.

And we're already seeing that arrogance. Obama made a few overtures to Republicans - inviting them to a dinner at the White House, meeting with some middle-of-the-road conservative writers - and now he's irritated that Republicans aren't being "bipartisan". I.e., they aren't rolling over and agreeing with his massive spending bill. He's not used to that. His whole life, the Obama charm has worked to get him what he wants: just act friendly to a white person, and they fall to their knees in gratitude that a smart black guy seems to like them.

I'm afraid that there's an inner Hugo Chavez in Obama just waiting to come out. Certainly his politics have been Chavez-like in their leftism in the past. (Heck, there was even that photo taken in one of his state campaign headquarters of the Che Guevara picture posted on the wall behind the receptionist.) I have this bad feeling that when Obama doesn't get his way the way he's used to, he's going to decide that he's justified in using his executive authority to MAKE people do what he wants.

After all, as he keeps reminding us, HE WON. Apparently that means that Republicans are no longer supposed to oppose him or take a principled stand against his proposals. After all, HE WON. Don't Republicans understand that that means the time for debate is over, and the time for unanimity in support of Obama has arrived?

Posted by: Mark on February 7, 2009 11:43 AM

It would be nice to include extra points, for legislators, for being the author of important legislation or holding a major position such as Speaker or Whip. Probably, the more one refined a system like this, the wider would be the gap between Obama and the others.

On the other hand, regarding the importance of resume, it is well to keep in mind that on any sensible rating system, the strongest resume of all would be that of -- Hoover!

Then again, I'm not too optimistic about Obama in the character and talent department, either. When the Republicans challenged his reprehensible "stimulus" package, his response was to use do-what-I-say-or-we-are-all-going-down-the-toilet scare tactics.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on February 7, 2009 11:43 AM

Eisenhower was also President of Columbia University, 1948-1950.

Posted by: Bill on February 7, 2009 12:05 PM

I think you've missed the larger trend here. An emphasis on youth as a political qualification.

Some things in favor of that:

1)telegenic makes good TV
2)being president requires superhuman energy
3)being able to think and speak on your feet
4)understanding of the complexity of technology and economics.
5)lack of political record being an asset rather than a liability
6)young charisma translates into better fundraising ability

Some factors arguing for older candidates:

1)advantages of being a name brand
2)gentrification of population = preferences for older candidates
3)need deep pockets to run for office

If we ever reverted to a publicly financed electoral process, that would make the elections much more interesting. It would reveal to what extent this youth bias exists.

Posted by: Robert nagle on February 7, 2009 5:12 PM

Hellary was an even weaker candidate, having been - like O - in the US Senate, but never having been in a state legislature. As for Ike, his background was stranger than many realise: though a soldier he had never seen action.

Can O be as flawed a human as Wilson or FDR? Alas, YES HE CAN.

Posted by: dearieme on February 7, 2009 7:49 PM

Bush I is often referred to as the "Resume" President.

Posted by: kurt9 on February 7, 2009 8:41 PM

Obama certainly rocketed to the top power position -- but it's like one of those Bugs Bunny cartoons where the speeding spaceship's momentum sends it right past the intended planet (Change, a New Washington) hurtling toward disaster. It appears he's already sealed his doom with this "stimulus" bill. The Republicans should consider themselves lucky if they are not along for the ride.

Posted by: sN on February 8, 2009 4:17 AM

Do we buy the notion that this point system correlates with the quality of the administrations these men presided over? Was Bush 41 the best president of the Twentieth Century? Did T. Roosevelt, Coolidge, Hoover, Truman, and Eisenhower follow, then the various "2" presidents with Harding, Kennedy, and Clinton bringing up the rear?

Hmmm, color me skeptical.

Mark offers Obama as "... without having ever faced a real challenge or overcome a real problem."

Does this really apply to a mixed race male being raised by a single white mother and her parents, who spent years in Indonesia as a child, who ended up getting into Harvard, becoming editor of the Harvard Law Review, then rising in Illinois politics to become a Senator?

Again, color me skeptical.

In the exceedingly long time he's been President (my how time flies, it seems like his inauguration was only a couple of weeks ago), with his efforts at reaching across the aisle being rebuffed, perhaps he's trying to learn from his most immediate predecessor in the White House, who did not need a significant majority (heck, no majority at all) to use a crisis to aver his mandate to do whatever it takes to respond. Of course, it helped Bush to have various supporters loudly denounce anyone who disagreed as, at best, a dupe out of the secret information loop or a terrorist loving traitor at worst.

But, hey, since the last eight years of brilliant White House leadership have left the USA so far above any past supremacy in all areas, Obama only needs to coast for four years, right? I mean, he's come into office with the Bush 43 legacy of peace and prosperity spreading across the entire planet. And so much of our wonderful current situation is due to the brilliant efforts of an administration filled with nearly superhuman geniuses. We've got a robust economy, plenty of surplus, peace and democracy spreading throughout the Middle East, a productive and respectful relationship with our former adversary Russia ... it boggles the mind how much the Bush administration accomplished restoring our economy, security and prestige in the world. Can someone remind me why the Republicans didn't take every race in a landslide?

Color me sarcastic.

Posted by: Chris White on February 8, 2009 10:31 AM

Chris -- Agreed that the Bushies deserve heaps of abuse, and hoping for the best from Obama and his dynamic ex-Clintonites, but ... "overcoming obstacles"? Obama may or may not be a saint and a genius, but the reality is that American prep schools and elite colleges are *desperate* for bright non-Asian non-whites. Show a modest academic gift and a willingness to stay out of jail and they're all over you. I'm sure that Obama's a hard worker, and all indications are that he's a very bright guy. But, at least where schools are concerned, he hasn't exactly needed to knock down a lot of barriers along the way.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 8, 2009 11:09 AM

Hate to quibble, but I think you're shortchanging TR, especially in comparison to Obama.

You can add #4 for his leadership in the NY state legislature while still in his 20s which is where he first developed significant skills in the political process and in using the media.

Add to that his dealing with Congress as US Civil Service Commissioner. This six-year position was the longest political office he held prior to the presidency and gave him incredible insight into the workings of the federal government so he knew how to get things done when he became president, both legislatively and administratively.

Moreover, TR was a consistent reformer throughout. Obama by contrast just looked the other way.

TR's service as Assistant Secretary of the Navy - in addition to gaining further legislative experience in working with Congress to fund naval expansion - meets requirement #6 with his leadership in laying the groundwork for defeating Spain in a global conflict and leading the US onto the world stage.

By contrast, Obama has zero foreign policy experience in a world that's far more dangerous than in TR's day.

Posted by: Jerry Blake on February 8, 2009 11:38 AM

Bill -- Yes, Ike was president of Columbia before taking on NATO. I didn't mention that out because I considered his executive experience in the Army as sufficient.

Chris -- I never claimed that resume quality was correlated with success as president, though I did hope commenters would look at the list and say more on the matter than they have thus far.

Bush 41 had the best score, but well may go down as a so-so president; failing re-election didn't help his reputation.

Hoover wasn't as bad as many make him to be, but his administration was no success despite his resume.

Most of the presidents who score high in the various historian surveys have a score of 2 -- as did some of the not-so-good ones.

However, those with a 1 -- Harding, JFK and Clinton are unlikely to be considered "great." Which doesn't really prove anything; as I said in the post, I did this for fun.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 8, 2009 11:53 AM

I'm not persuaded by a ranking system that can't differentiate, for example, among Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, all of whom rate a "2."

These men were all very different people going into the job, and produced different results in widely differing circumstances.

The foregoing sentence really doesn't say anthing, but that's the point: neither does the ranking system.

Posted by: Allan Connery on February 8, 2009 2:09 PM

You left out "holds a warrant from God." I watched his talk the other morning about his faith-based programs, and am just appalled that his pro-religion rhetoric and claims to revealed knowledge have attracted no attention whatever. He talked about his receiving a revelation of the truth as a community organizer in Chicago--which I interpret as "the truth that if he didn't attach himself to one of the brand-name cults he'd never become president."


Posted by: Narr on February 8, 2009 4:41 PM

It boggles the mind, less than three (3) weeks in office and Obama has been decried a failure. Let's review record at the end of the remaing 205 weeks of this term of his office and then make your claim

Posted by: philip snyder on February 8, 2009 5:49 PM

Um, Philip, who's called Obama a failure after three weeks? Certainly not me. That would be ridiculous.

But he IS arrogant as I argued above. And I don't think he speaks "presidentially" when he's off-script.

As for Obama's overcoming obstacles - give me a break. I'm not buying the line about how hard it is for a black person in this country. This is probably the best place in the world to be a black person. About a hundred times better than being black in Africa. As someone else pointed out above, getting into Harvard is not the accomplishment for a black person that it is for someone who doesn't get race preferences in his favor. Ditto for being elected to lead the law review.

I see Obama as the world's all-time biggest affirmative action hire. He seems like a nice enough, smart enough guy in his 40s who can read a prepared speech. Big whoop. There's about 9 million white men like that out there. The thing that sets him apart is his racial background, and that is the reason that 96% of blacks voted for him along with all the liberal whites who are ga-ga over having a dark-skinned guy as president. Take Obama and make him a white man and he wouldn't have gotten a second look.

The proof that he was elected because of his skin color is the rapturous adoration heaped upon him by liberal whites because of the "historic" nature of his election. If we were actually past race and if he was actually selected for his qualifications instead of his racial symbolism, no one would have thought to mention his race anymore than they would have talked about his shoe size.

So the liberals got their affirmative action hire. And now we're all going to get to watch him learn on the job and hope he doesn't bring the whole thing down on us because he was promoted too quickly and too far beyond his actual competence level.

Posted by: Mark on February 8, 2009 9:53 PM

Boil down Mark's comments and what of substance remains? Affirmative Action programs have given Obama a free ride all the way to the White House. Whites who voted for him are reverse racists. He's an uppity nigger who doesn't know his place.

Sorry, but this is not a serious position and leads only to tit-for-tat accusations of whether it is evidence of greater personal racism to have voted for or against Obama depending on the voter's race.

If it is a valid criticism that Obama speaks less "presidentially (sic*) off-script, do tell us what you thought of the orator who just headed back to Texas. Now there was an example of a great extemporaneous speaker. Or maybe you prefer the, oh, so presidential, "off script" utterances of Richard Nixon and his thesaurus of racial and religious epithets. At least the man speaks in complete grammatically correct sentences and only rarely invents words or uses a cringe-worthy malapropism.

[*"Presidentially" isn't a word, To be grammatical try reforming the sentence to something like, 'He does not sound presidential when speaking off script."]

While I have never belonged to a political party and have plenty of problems with both Democrats and Republicans, given the choice we had at the polls during this election I'm glad Obama won. The choice between an aged Cold Warrior prone to making hasty decisions aimed at reinforcing his self image as a "maverick" and a calm, post-Boomer generation, community organizer was made by the voters who gave Obama one of the stronger margins of victory we've seen in many years.

Since he's less than a month in office, and still dealing primarily with a financial crisis and armed engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan that were left behind by the last administration, perhaps we can give him the benefit of the doubt until he's had a chance to make his own blunders and triumphs. If, as we keep being told, Bush 43's legacy will take decades to properly appreciate, whaddaya say we give the new guy at least a couple of months and a cabinet past the confirmation process before deciding how successful his presidency is.

Posted by: Chris White on February 9, 2009 8:59 AM

I'm a tad skeptical on the ability of our political system to handle the responsibilities we've heaped upon it. We've constructed our own private Leviathan, only to discover that it has morphed into the Predator State.

While I think other factors are of greater significance than presidential leadership, I will say that it seems clear that the U.S. has suffered a serious deficit in its supremos since Ike. The extent of the step-down in general competency was of course evident immediately with the presidency of Kennedy (a remarkable lightweight), but JFK has been joined by many other members of this fraternity over the last 50 years.

Given that we have a large population of at least average competency, it seems hard to believe that for the past half-century our country has really lacked anyone with the serious problem-solving skills and general good judgment of, say, Washington. I can only conclude that the problem seems structural; that is, the incentives are seriously misaligned, or the task is too big and needs to be broken up. If this is true, the remedy needs to be structural. Seems like its time for another constitutional convention: we've got some big problems to fix.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 9, 2009 9:07 AM

One tool for addressing the problem is Instant Runoff Voting. As long as it is almost impossible for alternative parties to win elections and voting for them hurts the major party candidate whose positions come closest to the alternative party platform, we're going to be stuck with a choice between the Good Cop and Bad Cop parties. While I'm content to have a "Good Cop" in the White House at the moment, I'd prefer being able to vote for a wider range of candidates.

Also important is the self-evident truth that we've ceded far more influence to global corporations through convincing ourselves that government is, by definition, the problem not the solution. And so we allow, for example, banking industry lobbyists to write the rules and regulations, then see the same small set of individuals move around from high level positions in banking firms to places on regulatory agencies or in elected office. This is true in almost every area – health care, insurance, agriculture, and on ad infinitum.

So long as government is painted as the problem and all taxes little more than theft we're going to be stuck with a government unable to do more than whatever those best served by the status quo wish to be done.

Posted by: Chris White on February 9, 2009 10:11 AM

I think Eisenhower and Bush I were both good Presidents (although Eisenhower was the better one). They were both good in quiet, establishmentarian ways that were only appreciated in retrospect. Bush I suffered by being linked to the already-too-ideological Republican party, which gave him hell for a sensible budget compromise which did a lot to pave the way for the budget surpluses of the late 90s.

This rating system needs to have some metric for length of legislative service...silly to count LBJ's Senate experience the same as Obamas.

The extent of the step-down in general competency was of course evident immediately with the presidency of Kennedy (a remarkable lightweight),

I think JFK is easily the most overrated President in U.S. history (although Wilson is up there too). But the other Presidents who caught a wave of publicity and got into the Presidency without being super qualified -- Carter and Clinton -- were both I think really unusually smart and hard-working people who were better than JFK. However, in all three cases (JFK, Carter, and Clinton) you see serious management screwups in the first year or so of the Presidency that are attributable to inexperience. (WIthholding judgement on Obama...I think it is a little early to pronounce him a failed President, although other commenters here will no doubt disagree).

So long as government is painted as the problem and all taxes little more than theft we're going to be stuck with a government unable to do more than whatever those best served by the status quo wish to be done.

I'm well known around here as comparatively liberal, but I would say the deeper problem is the way both parties are sold out to status quo interests. That's an issue with the whole intellectual establishment, when the financial system vaporized itself there were no insider establishment types to speak up for a true alternative.

Posted by: MQ on February 9, 2009 1:54 PM

Hey, I'm in almost complete agreement with MQ!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 9, 2009 2:59 PM


Both Roosevelts served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, which should count as (3). OK, (3) is "if never a governor", but I don't think that's entirely fair. FDR was tabbed for VP in 1920 largely off his ASotN service.

I would expand the scale. More points for the big things, and for extended service. That should count for more than a brief stint (especially if re-elected). Truman's 10 years in the Senate should count more than Nixon's two. The Senate should count more than the House. And service as a party leader in Congress should count for something; Johnson was "master of the Senate" and Ford was Minority Leader.

Also I would give a point for state legislative service (elected to something, exposure to the lawmaking and appropriations process), and military service.

Maybe I'll compile an index of my own. Also, it would be interesting to evaluate Vice-Presidents. T Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, and Johnson were elected Vice President, and then elevated to President: that is, when their resumés were evaluated, it was for Vice-President. Bush I and Nixon were separately evaluated for President.

One could also ask how qualified Agnew, Barkley, Wallace, Dawes, or Sherman were. Cheney clearly passes the bar, I think.

Defeated candidates for both offices could be evaluated: were (for instance) how would Palin, Kemp, Ferraro, Shriver, Miller, or Knox rate? How would Dole rate in 1976 as opposed to 1996?

Of course the resumé has not always been a reliable guide. Hoover had a great resumé. So did James Buchanan. Jeff Davis had a superb resumé for a wartime President, but is generally considered a failure (not for losing, but for screwing up).

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on February 9, 2009 4:06 PM

Rich -- Thank you for the heads-up. But (and I admit my phrasing was poor because I wanted to keep the list looking clean) administrative experience such as being Assistant Secretary of the Navy only scores if the subject was not ever a governor. Legislative dealings while in that office don't count for FDR either because this category also is for those who never were a governor.

Just goes to show the limitations of a simple scheme and the need for improvements that you and other have suggested.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 9, 2009 4:15 PM

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