The Problem with Experience: Do Career Politicians Make Good Presidents?

Inaugural procession, shows President-elect Lincoln and President BuchananInaugural procession, shows President-elect Lincoln and President Buchanan. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Every presidential election cycle, candidates scramble to position themselves as either outsiders eager to “clean up Washington,” or as seasoned insiders ready to lead.

The dichotomy dates back to the election of 1824, when sitting Secretary of State John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts (a professional diplomat and son of a Founding Father) ran against General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee (famed Indian killer, war hero, and legendary frontiersman). The close election was thrown to the House of Representatives, where congressmen decided that the experience and expertise of Adams was preferable to the unpredictable wild man from the West. Jackson and his supporters were outraged. Immediately, they labeled the contest “stolen” and charged Adams with corruption. Jacksonians spent the next four years slandering Adams’s name and making ridiculous claims about tyranny and despotism. Career politicians like Adams, they asserted, made bad presidents.

Perhaps they were on to something. Looking back on 226 years of chief executives, it is clear that some of our worst presidents have been our most qualified and experienced politicians. Take, for example, James Buchanan (1857-1861). On paper, the Pennsylvania bachelor was ideal, having spent the entirety of his adult life in public service, so much so that one of his several nicknames was “The Old Functionary.” In the 1820s, he served in the US House of Representatives; in the 1830s, he worked as Minister to Russia, then as US Senator; in the 1840s, he was Secretary of State under Polk and oversaw a successful war against Mexico; and in the 1850s, he returned to diplomacy as Minister to the Court of St. James, arguably the most important foreign assignment. When he ran for president in 1856, he stood proudly on his record and sneered at his Republican rival, Colonel John Fremont, who had zero political experience.

As president, however, “The Old Functionary” was a disaster. His administration was staggeringly corrupt. He helped orchestrate the notorious Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, then alienated northern voters by making the spread of slavery national policy. He tried to force slavery on the anti-slavery people of the Kansas Territory, thereby splitting his own Democratic Party. Then, during the Secession Winter of 1860-61, he did absolutely nothing to prevent disunion, claiming that the president lacked authority over the states. Buchanan’s actions as president led directly to the Civil War.

Another easy example of an abysmal chief executive with a fabulous resume is Richard Nixon (1969-1974). By the time he was elected president in 1968, Dick Nixon had been a household name for decades. His spectacular career began in the 1940s, just after the Second World War, when he was elected to the US House as a Republican from southern California. In Congress, he chaired the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and became a national celebrity by going after big-name would-be communists such as top diplomat Alger Hiss. Nixon’s notoriety got him the Vice Presidential spot under the popular two-term president Dwight Eisenhower. Throughout the 1950s, Nixon served as the strong-arm of the Eisenhower administration, sparring with Soviets abroad and hunting spies at home (allowing Ike to cultivate a grandfatherly image). In 1960, Vice President Nixon ran against and lost to the relatively inexperienced, but more media-savvy, Democrat John Kennedy.

The 1960 defeat led to years of disappointment for Nixon, but in 1968 his “law and order” conservatism appealed to white Americans frightened by race riots, protesters, women’s rights proponents, and urban decay. Undoubtedly, Nixon’s years of service prepared him for the presidency, but as Chief Executive he made many terrible, destructive decisions that eroded Americans’ faith in their government and led to the first (and only) presidential resignation. Known collectively as “Watergate,” Nixon’s crimes and deceptions boggle the mind: unauthorized wire-tapings, covert break-ins, money laundering, political assassinations, illegal invasions of foreign nations, and extraordinary abuse of executive powers. Americans, many historians have argued, still live in the “shadow of Watergate,” exhibiting a deep distrust of politicians.

Of course, there are important exceptions. Seasoned politicos like Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were beloved leaders who implemented popular policies and have been judged “great presidents” by scholars. Likewise, there are instances of men with little government experience rising to the challenge of high office and achieving great things, Abraham Lincoln being the most famous (and celebrated). Even the current president, Barack Obama, is worth noting: his only political experience before the White House was seven years in the Illinois legislature and three in the US Senate. His administration thus far has proven remarkably free of scandal and corruption, and many of his policies (particularly in the areas of gay rights and health care) have been hailed as game changing.

In short, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to predicting who will make a “great” president. Candidates with outstanding resumes, like Buchanan and Nixon, have led to disaster, while aspirants with little experience, like Lincoln and Obama, have proven positively transformative. Nevertheless, we should not be easily lured by claims of “experience” as a White House requirement. Sometimes, a consummate insider can be a dreadful mistake.

About the Author

Michael Landis

Michael Todd Landis is an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University. He is the author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Cornell, 2014).

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