If Barack Obama is denied the Democratic presidential nomination, it will almost certainly have something to do with voters' fears that he lacks the experience to be, as we said in quainter times, leader of the free world. As Team Clinton never tires of pointing out, Obama has spent just three years on the national stage, as a U.S. Senator, and prior to that toiled briefly in the obscurity of the Illinois State Legislature. This much is obviously true: should Obama become president, he will indeed have one of the shortest resumés of any postwar occupant of the Oval Office.
But how much does that really matter? The empirical record is actually quite mixed. On the one hand, it is easy to look at two of our more recent chief executives and conclude that inexperience is a significant handicap. Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush had very limited public service records prior to taking on the top job. Carter was a one-term governor of Georgia, and a lieutenant governor and state legislator before that. Bush the Second had held only one elected position, spending six years as Texas governor. Prior to his 1994 election to that office, Bush's career had consisted mainly of failing in the oil business. Carter and W are, of course, both regarded as seriously sub par presidents.
The inexperience argument, however, works far better for Jimmy than it does for George. Carter stormed the capital in 1977 with an army of cronies from Atlanta, and many of his early moves were poorly advised and amateurish. Bush 43, on the other hand, enjoyed the assistance of men and women who had themselves spent many years at the highest levels of national government. Dick Cheney, in particular, served as Chief of Staff for one president and Secretary of Defense for another, with a few terms in Congress in between. That unprecedented experience bought us Iraq, Guantánamo, the relief disaster in New Orleans, and a stale economy. Carter, who at least brokered peace between Israel and Egypt, did far less damage.
And what of those men with outstanding pre-presidential records of service? Well, the first President Bush had done it all: Congress, U.N. ambassador, envoy to China, and eight years at the right hand of his immediate predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Bush 41 gets kudos today for his mastery of foreign policy and the Gulf War of 1991, but the American people showed him the door after just one term. And his eldest son has already demolished Poppy's legacy in the Middle East.
Richard Nixon also came to the White House with a strong curriculum vitae. Nixon had been congressman, senator, and Vice President for two terms under Dwight Eisenhower. And look how well that turned out.
By contrast, Ronald Reagan's government experience exceeded George W. Bush's by only two years. To be sure, California's governor is a far more powerful official than the governor of Texas. Still, just in terms of years on the job and length of the resumé, Reagan was not a particularly seasoned public servant. Nevertheless, his presidency is considered by many to have been highly successful. Reagan remains, in my view, the most overrated president in history, but he was clearly more effective that any of the four men listed above (Carter, Nixon, and the Bushes).
Indeed, Franklin Roosevelt, the only truly great president of the twentieth century, had a background that was positively Carteresque. FDR served only as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and one-term New York governor before going on to unseat Herbert Hoover in 1932. Roosevelt turned that unlikely scenario into twelve celebrated years in the White House, a reign ended only by his death.
We obviously have a small sample here, only forty-two presidents total and just eleven since World War II. Thus, it is unwise to try to form too many generalizations. But we can say that the empirical record does not support our notions about the link between experience and presidential success. Relatively inexperienced men have flourished in the job, while long-time public servants have floundered.
One possibility is that we simply need more data points. Another is that the job and its circumstances are too idiosyncratic to allow for prediction. There may, indeed, be nothing that can truly prepare one for the presidency other than the experience of being president. Bill Clinton, despite a full decade as Arkansas governor, spent his first two years in the White House as the second coming of Jimmy Carter, an amateur surrounded by hometown yokels. But he gained his footing as he went along and ultimately led a popular and effective administration.
(And let's also not assume that yokels come only from places like Atlanta and Little Rock. Ronald Reagan's California mafia got him into all sorts of trouble during his eight turbulent years in Washington. It was the inside-the-beltway Baker boys—James and Howard—who helped to right the ship.)
Finally, what about the notion that prior executive experience is critical? Again, we have relatively little to go on. On the one hand, the most successful recent presidents—FDR, Reagan, and Clinton—were in fact former governors. On the other had, as noted above, so were Carter and George W. Bush. John F. Kennedy's first executive experience came as president, yet his lack of a CEO's background didn't prevent him from making all the right calls during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The bottom line, then, is that we simply don't know. Barack Obama may be no Jack Kennedy, but Hillary Clinton may be no Bill. We won't find out until we elect one of them. And by then it will be too late.