Where do presidents come from?

Aug 22 2011 - 9:55pm


Neal Humphrey
Neal Humphrey

We've had 20 presidents in the past 110 years. And a voter has to wonder, what qualifies (or drives) fellow citizens to make a run for the White house? Well, with a couple of exceptions there's usually a warm-up interlude of some kind of political experience that can help diagnose the run-for-president-bug.

In one exception in 1928 voters elected Herbert Hoover, a bureaucrat who had held no elected office. Hoover rolled into the White House just in time to kick off the Great Depression.

Not similarly but still exceptional, in 1952 American voters gave a retired United States Army general a landslide victory over a hapless Democrat candidate. President Eisenhower had never served in any elected office.

One-time senator, Lyndon B. Johnson, moved up from vice-president when John Kennedy was assassinated. And LBJ continued in office when he crushed his Republican opponent, Senator Goldwater, in 1964.

One-time representative, Gerald R. Ford, moved up from vice-president when Richard Nixon resigned. But Ford lost a squeaker to Jimmy Carter.

One-time representative, George Herbert Walker Bush, did a stint as a bureaucrat before being elected vice-president, after which voters made him president for a single term.

The other 15 presidents had all been governors, albeit a couple of them over U.S. territories, but had still served as an elected executive rather than a representative.

In fact, up until the presidential elections in 2008, it had been almost half a century since a member of the Senate had moved directly to the White House. And it's been 130 years since a member of the House of Representatives was elected President of the United States.

Most of the time most voters have given the nod to a presidential candidate who had been a governor, preferably the governor of a state with both a large population and economy like Texas, New York, or California.

You see, voters elect 100 U.S. senators and 36-plus dozen U.S. representatives. By contrast to those 535 members of Congress, voters elect only 50 governors. And again, voters have preferred by a better than 3 to 1 margin to send a governor with executive experience to the executive branch of government. I say "better than" because President Eisenhower had an abundance of executive experience in the military.

Then there was the historical anomaly called the presidential election of 2008.

The Republicans ran a very senior and experienced senator at the top of the ticket with the governor of a state with three-quarters of Utah's population as vice-president (the Top of Utah counties have more people than all of Alaska). Governor Palin had been in office less than two years.

The Democrats ran a junior senator with a little over three years in office on top of the ticket with a very senior and experienced senator as vice-president.

When it came to running a large organization or institution (or a nation for that matter), all of the 2008 presidential and vice-presidential candidates had little or no direct experience. On another local note, the mayor of Salt Lake County oversees governmental services for more people than the governor of Alaska.

And regardless of your political leanings, you have to admit that the president/vice-president choices in 2008 were not what the American voter was accustomed to. Those candidates didn't come from where presidents usually come from.

In 2012 the Americans who vote will let the world know if they believe the current crew in Washington knows how to run the country. The winning campaign strategy will be simple. Incumbents will declare, "Sure we know how to run the country! Look at what we've done for you." The short list of necessary accomplishments will include: jobs, confidence in the economy, and a government that acts like it understands that taxpayers are convinced they are sending Washington enough money to run the government and don't ask for more.

Alas, none of that is going to get done (and, as usual, President Bush will be blamed).

All the Republicans have to do is put together a ticket of proven executives, shoot holes in the incumbent's excuses for not being able to run the government, and campaign with a substantive plan for job creation, turning the economy around, and forcing the government to live within their means like the rest of us.

Alas, even if elected there's little evidence that the current crop of Republican hopefuls have the leadership chops to get it done. But they're likely to get their shot.

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