In the April 2, 2008 of OpEdNews, Margaret Bassett asked, "Do Senators make good presidents?" I wondered that too, so I looked for an answer. This analysis began with a clear understanding that partisans tend to use statistics the way a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not for illumination. I tried to take a non-partisan view; to do an unbiased assessment. You can be the judge of my success.
I first reviewed the biographies of all 42 presidents (Cleveland counts twice) to identify those who were former Governors, Senators, US Representatives, career military officers, diplomats, cabinet officers, and those with sub-cabinet positions in the federal government. Where a president held more than one position I listed them all.
Then I looked at "net favorability" rankings for each president as reported in the June 2007 Rasmussen Report. Rasmussen asked 1,000 randomly-selected adults to rate the presidents on a four-point scale, from "very favorable" to "very unfavorable." I subtracted the unfavorable percentages from the favorable ones to compute a "net favorability" rating. These ratings ranged from a high of 92% for George Washington down to negative 28% for Richard Nixon. Our current president came in at a penultimate minus 10%. Then I ordered them from #1 (Washington) to #42 (Nixon).
Historians may view the presidents differently than randomly-selected adults do, and polls with different political slants will grade presidents differently. Still, Rasmussen's results seem fairly typical of many historians' polls, especially at the extremes.
Of our 42 presidents, there have been 20 governors, 16 senators, and 23 representatives (with some double- and triple-counts). Fifteen held various diplomatic, cabinet-level, or other governmental positions. Five were career military officers.
Two presidents assumed the presidency with only senatorial experience: Benjamin Harrison (ranked #37, 6 years as a senator) and Warren G. Harding (#36, 6 years). Harry Truman (#10, 10 years in the Senate) served briefly as vice-president. Seven other presidents were governors but no had prior federal experience before being elected president: Cleveland, Wilson, Coolidge, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and G. W. Bush. And one president, Chester Arthur, was a lawyer with no government experience at all before succeeding Garfield.
The five top-ranked presidents were, in descending order, Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt. The bottom five, counting down to the worst, were Tyler, Pierce, Fillmore, George W. Bush, and Nixon. (I do not agree with all the rankings; for instance, in my view Nixon was a junior-varsity criminal compared to W. Bush. But I digress.)
Presidents in the top-half of the rankings tended to have generally broader experience in the government. They may have been diplomats or cabinet-level officers (both Roosevelts were Assistant Secretaries of the Navy, a sub-cabinet position) before becoming president, and they had more international experience. Those in the bottom half had generally more limited world-views and little or no executive-branch experience.
Being a Founding Father boosts a president's ranking. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison are all among the Top-10. But it's too late to nominate a Founder. And no president gets partial "Founders credit" for trying to re-write the Constitution after-the-fact. We like our presidents to have at least as much regard for the Constitution and rule of law as we do.
Naturally, there are exceptions to these generalities. For instance, Arthur (#19) had no government experience before being elected vice-president and, six months later, succeeding to the presidency. Yet be became known as the "Father of Civil Service." Mark Twain (no lover of politicians) said of him, "No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired... more generally respected."
Does Age Matter?
Some may ask, "What about age? Shouldn't a president's age affect his performance?" The answer is no, not within this range of ages. I compared the average ages on taking office of the top and bottom halves of the favorability list, and then the Top-10 and Bottom-10 presidents on the list. The average age of the Top-10 was 54.8 years; for the Bottom-10, 54.7 years. (The youngest president, Theodore Roosevelt, was 42 when he assumed office. The oldest was Ronald Reagan, 70.)
Which Background is Best?
You would expect that if there were no differences among the rankings for ex-governors, senators, representatives, etc., the average ranking would be about 21.5 for each group. And, for presidents who had served either as governors or as US Representatives, it was: the average ranking for former governors was 21.5; for ex-representatives, 21.2 (lower is better; Washington is #1).
As a group, military officers were seen most favorably (average ranking 13.6), probably because they tend to be decisive leaders, good strategists, effective motivators, and they perform well under pressure. They know how to manage large bureaucracies to get things done. Four of the five military leaders were in the top half of the rankings. All were elected soon after the wars in which they distinguished themselves.