Who make the best presidents? Legislators? Governors? Veeps? We take a look through American presidents to make that determination.
Legislators vs. Executives: Who are the better Presidents?
In a recent Daniel Henninger column in the Wall Street Journal, the author asks the unasked, “Manchin-Adams in 2024?” Of course, the real point of the column is to note that one, both of these men are Democrats and that two, we have a first-term Democrat in the White House. The column’s gist is not just about the titular possibility but about Joe Biden and the vice-president, Kamala Harris. “How much more far-fetched is “Adams in ’24” than reporters writing seriously of late that if Vice President Kamala Harris fades, her replacement on the ticket could be Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, previously the ho-hum mayor of South Bend., Ind., whose population (103,000) is about the size of a New York City neighborhood.” Aside from the near certainty that Joe Biden will become the first incumbent president not to run since Lyndon B. Johnson 54 years ago, this raises a plethora of questions over who should run.
To this column, a response written by reader Phil Funk notes, “Regarding Daniel Henninger’s column “Manchin-Adams in 2024?” (Wonder Land, Jan. 6): I’ve often thought that moving someone from the legislative branch of government to the top position in the executive branch was a bad idea. Unfortunately, president Biden and his wet-finger-in-the-air management style have done nothing but support that view. However, if Mayor Eric Adams can accomplish half of what he proposes for New York City, an Adams-Manchin ticket has some appeal.”
This is a logical assumption. However, the day-to-day lives of governors and mayors are different from that of legislators. But the office of the president of the United States is a unique animal. If we were to assume the purer version of the Constitution crafted by the founders, this assumption would most certainly be the case. But the presidency of 2022, for good or ill, I would say mostly, also shapes policy and even legislation itself.
But first, we can contend with what success looks like. In my book, the Conservative Historian Selected Works (yes, available on Amazon), I rank the presidents using criteria vastly different than the usual lists one sees. So. there are two criteria of this piece: whether presidents performed well by any objective measure and whether they performed well in an ideological sense.
For example, Barack Obama, who never held an executive-type job unless one counts community activism akin to being a governor, polls well in terms of liberal approval. There is even talk of his wife running in a future election.
From my perspective, he was a failure. I wouldn’t say I liked his positions on the economy nor foreign policy, but where he ultimately failed was to move America to a post-racial society. This was his promise back in 2005 with his famous there is only the United States. But for all of his failures and some of his minor triumphs, would the policies and execution have changed had he been governor of Il instead of a one-term Senator?
Then the experience issue comes up. When John McCain selected Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate, it was seen as another out-of-the-box thinking move that the “maverick” was famous. She had served about one year of office, and that of third smallest state by population was not a factor for the McCain team. What quickly became a factor was that Palin was simply in over her head. Being mayor of Wassily and governor did not prepare to speak articulately on national tax policy, immigration, or foreign policy.
Yet experience itself is not a direct correlation to success. James Buchanan, one of our most ineffectual Presidents, had arguably the best resume. He served in the army in the war of 1812 and was the only non-officer to ascend to the oval office. He represented Pennsylvania in the house of representatives, was minister to Russia, a member of the Senate, minister to Great Britain, and Secretary of State during the Polk administration serving during the war with Mexico. Rarely has this combination of domestic and foreign affairs knowledge been combined in a single individual. And how did all of this experience play out? Writing about the 15th president George F Will notes, “Why is Buchanan always so near the bottom? How, exactly, did he screw up? The lists don’t usually go into much detail, except for a few vague sentences about how he failed to avert the war. But that passive formulation doesn’t get at his spectacular awfulness. Repeatedly, he made terrible decisions, and when presented with various options, pursued the most extreme pro-slavery position (even though he came from Pennsylvania). He chose a Cabinet dominated by corrupt enslavers who lined their own pockets and stole government assets. When crises came, he had no answers because he didn’t think the federal government should intervene. As more people questioned his choices, he angrily dismissed their criticism. These deficits have kept him permanently at or near the bottom of presidential rankings. Andrew Johnson stubbornly refused to work with Congress; Herbert Hoover was overwhelmed by the Depression; Nixon felt that he was above the law. Buchanan shared traits with all of them; a difficult trifecta to recover from.”
His successor, Abraham Lincoln, served precisely one term in Congress 12 years before assuming the presidency. Joe Biden has brought 30 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president, and as of this writing, his presidency is flailing by most measures, including voices within his party.
Robert Caro has devoted much of his 83 years to the pursuit of a single biography, Lyndon B. Johnson. Now I would argue there is no single figure, ever, from George Washington to Qin Chi Huang Di to Mohammad who needs four volumes. Sure, if we lived for 200 years and spent 150 of those years doing amazing things, then what, one or two books? But four. We can safely say no one on the planet knows more about LBJ than Caro. He probably knows Johnson better than Ladybird ever did. Caro’s third book is entitled Master of the Senate, which gives one a sense of Caro’s, and history’s sense of Johnson’s legislative abilities “He not only had the gift of “reading” men and women, of seeing into their hearts, he also had the gift of putting himself in their place, of not just seeing what they felt but of feeling what they felt, almost as if what had happened to them had happened to him, too.” And as for legislative accomplishments, “Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans, but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them hold on their destiny, made them, at last, and forever, a true part of American political life. He was to become the lawmaker for the poor, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. He was to be the bearer of at least a measure of social justice to those to whom social justice had so long been denied, the restorer of at least a measure of dignity to those who so desperately needed to be given some dignity, the redeemer of the promises made to them by America.”
And it was this legislative genius that brought forth the civil rights Act of 1964, which I think was a great thing, and the Great Society, which I believe was a terrible thing. Many historians lump the two together, but I see the Civil Rights Acts as the natural culmination of Johnson’s efforts in the late 1950s. I know the rest of the legislation as the extension of Johnson’s hero, FDR, and his New deal. Nevertheless, Johnson’s experience as a legislator was massive. that Johnson passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1965 Immigration Act and created Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start and the Job Corps, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, besides much else, amounting to more than a thousand pieces of legislation. His “was perhaps the most comprehensive and ambitious effort to change the political, social, and economic landscape of the United States in all of the country’s history,” writes historian Randall B. Woods. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, commentator Max Boot notes, “Early in his narrative, Mr. Woods makes an oft-neglected point: The first building block of the Great Society was the great tax cut of 1964. This legislation, which cut taxes by $11 billion—the federal budget was around $100 billion—helped boost the economy and increased government revenues by $7.5 billion in its first year. It is hard to know who will be more discomfited by realizing that LBJ was a supply-sider—his liberal admirers or conservative critics.”
Yet Johnson was one of the very few presidents, still in good health, to deny to run for president when he was eligible in 1968. Because of the timing of the Kennedy assassination, more than two years into his term, Johnson had only served five years and, under the 25th amendment, could have run. So the short answer was Vietnam. It is one thing to master the details of legislative processes or to know how to strongarm Senate colleagues or spend federal monies. It is quite another way to discern the motivations of figures such as Ho Chi Minh or to prosecute a war in which the objections and the enemy were ambiguous. Opinions about what Vietnam and Johnson’s actions could fill up several libraries (back when books were printed), but what is unmistakable is that his vast legislative experience, and success, did not serve him in the role of Commander in Chief. Why did in the late 1960s, after the passage of landmark civil rights legislation, It is here that the proponents of executive experience come up. Johnson had never really run anything until he became president.
So, governors are the place to look, right? But, again, from an ideological perspective, opinions are mixed. Former two-term California Governor Ronald Reagan is one of the greatest presidents of history. Progressives would say the same as former governor of New York Franklin Roosevelt. And it is unquestionable that each, in his way, knew how to run an administration.
Yet Jimmy Carter, one of our more ineffectual presidents, had been governor of Georgia before becoming president. Stephen Hess, writing for the Brookings Institute, “Carter’s an outsider who doesn’t understand the levers of national governance; or Carter surrounds himself with a “Georgia Mafia” whose weaknesses are the same as his own, or Carter is a bad manager who hasn’t been able to sort out decisions that a president must make from those that should be settled at lower levels; or Congress is so uncontrollable that it will not allow any president to exercise the reins of leadership, or the bureaucracy has grown beyond the span of presidential control; or many of the nation’s problems are highly intractable; or even all these reasons have taken together—although there is truth in all.”
What about the Vice Presidency as the right post before succeeding in the presidency. We have already discussed Johnson, who served three years in the role. As with legislators and governors, the record is mixed. Martin Van Buren’s term as Jackson’s Vice President did not help provide solid answers to the panic of 1837. Nor did Adams serving as the first Vice President prevent him from seeking the Alien and Sedition Acts, one of the more wrongheaded pieces of legislation in history. Likewise, the record is mixed for long-term Veeps such as HW Bush and Gerald Ford.
Then there are very short-termers as Vice President. So short that it is hard to say whether the office helped or not. Members of this list include John Tyler, Teddy Roosevelt, and Andrew Johnson, one of the worst presidents.
Yet one of the greatest presidents, and easily the most underrated, was Vice President for nearly two years and the Governor of Massachusetts to boot. As biographer Amity Shlaes writes of Coolidge, “Under Coolidge, the federal debt fell. Under Coolidge, the top income tax rate fell by half, to 25 percent. Under Coolidge, the federal budget was always in surplus. Under Coolidge, unemployment was 5 percent or even 3 percent. Under Coolidge, Americans wired their homes for electricity and bought their first cars or household appliances on credit. Under Coolidge, the economy grew strongly, even as the federal government shrank. Under Coolidge, the rates of patent applications and patents granted increased dramatically. Under Coolidge, there came no federal anti-lynching law, but lynchings themselves became less frequent, and Ku Klux Klan membership dropped by millions.”
So up and down the line, we have some governors, legislators, and VPs who were successful, and some who were not. So, if it is not the experience itself, what about temperament. If there are two factors for success, aside from role and experience, it is the personal attributes of temperament and wisdom.
Skills over a resume. This is not a universal opinion. Writing for the CS Monitor, Matthew Dickinson notes, “it is that they overstate the degree to which temperament and character can help predict presidential effectiveness. This is not to say that a president’s temperament has no bearing on a president’s performance. However, it is to say that when it comes to explaining why presidents make the choices they do, temperament rarely plays a controlling role. I believe that because presidential choices are often so constrained by factors outside their control, temperament has little bearing on whether presidents succeed or not.”
In a blog post, Dickinson weds temperament to intellect to determine success. First, note that we have a long history of electing – and reelecting – intellectual lightweights to the highest position in the land. Start with FDR, architect of the New Deal and Supreme Allied Commander during World War II. He certainly lacked the brains to be president. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes – no intellectual slouch – famously described FDR as having “a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament. Social critic H.L. Mencken tabbed him “Roosevelt minor.” Columnist Walter Lippmann called Roosevelt “a pleasant man who, without any qualifications for office, would very much like to be president.” But, of course, these guys were experts, so they knew what they were talking about.”
What I think Holmes, and by extension Dickinson misses is the dichotomy of intellect and wisdom. “the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively, especially about abstract or academic matters.” Contrast this with wisdom, “the soundness of an action or decision about applying experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” These definitions sound similar but note the fundamental differences of understanding abstract matters vs. good judgment. Intellect can be measured, there is even a test, and it can be seen in policy wonkishness. But having a comprehensive knowledge of Putin’s history, actions, government, and Russian history does not necessarily translate into knowing how to stop him from invading Crimea. As noted, highly experienced presidents have failed.
Think about this one single area out of 20 priorities a president must consider. Policy choices in this regard would be determined by a President’s decision to rally other European nations against this move. So, a president would need to have deft diplomatic skills and policies. Part of this is choosing those with deft diplomatic skills. George Schultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State, had the goods. John Kerry, Obama’s choice, did not.
The policy would mean undermining Putin’s support by undermining his use of oil as a cudgel against his enemies. The real skill is the ability to look around dark corners in knowing the impacts of arming the Ukrainians or even letting the nation into NATO and gauging the impact of that on Putin, and his all-important Cronies, who are the bulwark of his government. Intellectual capacity is helpful in all these areas but not the determinant of success.
This is why I wed wisdom to success rather than intellect as the determinant. During the recent pandemic crisis, a few critical levers of policy, from mask mandates for children to lockdowns, are increasing scrutiny. A recent study from Johns Hopkins (not a crank institute) held that lockdowns had little to no effect in stopping the virus. The data on kids and masks is even more problematic. There is little evidence of the efficacy of masks, but new studies are showing that masks are detrimental to the health of children. Somehow we have made the problems worse.
The common excuse is, “well, this was unprecedented, and we did know then what we do now.” On the face of it, this is a spurious claim. From the inception of the virus in the spring of 2020, there were precise data that older people, over 65, were suffering at a factor several times middle-aged people, and the numbers for children were minimal. We had data from the first six months showing that lockdown states like IL or CA were not materially performing any better than more open states such as Florida or South Dakota.
But that is a cop-out of another stripe. One of the impressive aspects of George Washington’s administration was that everything was the first time. Never in the history of humanity had a Republic been established immediately on a Continental scale. About the only comparison, the Roman Republic began to fall apart almost immediately at that point of continental scale. Everything from national debt to dealing with Europe was new for Washington and his team, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. Yes, the pandemic was new. So was the rapid industrialization of the nation, an expeditionary force in World War I, and mass immigration. Presidents are not elected to simply follow a rule book like a referee in an NFL game. They are expected to manage the knowns, but also the unknowns. And the best way to do this is not necessary to have served in Congress or been a governor but to have the wisdom to manage the new affair.