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August 05, 2013 9:16 AM Why Governors Don’t Make Better Presidents

By Jonathan Bernstein

Brad DeLong is absolutely correct about this:

[T]he failure in 2009 to nominate Fed governors who would give Bernanke a left wing on the FMOC to balance out the bank presidents and thus give him freedom of maneuver was a huge unforced error.

Which he expanded (on twitter) to appointments more generally. Include judicial appointments in that — if Obama had filled DC Circuit and other appeals court spots early, more decisions go his way over the years.

But is this right?

It is, I think, a powerful reason not to nominate senators—or, indeed, anybody other than a successful governor—for the presidency.

I don’t think so. As far as I know, Jimmy Carter was a successful governor, but he was an awful president. The post-WWII governors — Carter, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush — are a mixed bunch, both overall and, I’d say, simply in terms of the administration/executive branch side of the job. In part, that’s because Washington experience counts, too. In part, I suspect it’s because “governor” means different things in different states, and in many cases the job of governor is just very different than the job of president.

Sure, I’d like to have presidents with some executive experience. Or perhaps (federal) executive branch experience. FDR had both, and he turned out OK. But legislative experience helps, too.

Here’s what I really think: presidents these days have presidencies. That allows them to bring in experience that they lack.

And I have a story that may be correct which explains what the last two Democrats got right and what they got wrong. Bill Clinton deliberately tried to do better than Carter by bringing in people from Washington…unfortunately, however, because he also wanted to get away from having anyone at all, good or bad, who worked for Carter, he wound up getting lots of Hill people and no one who knew how to run a White House.

Barack Obama fixed that, hiring lots of people with White House experience, and therefore ran a more competent White House. However, he was still very low on people with significant executive branch experience. Probably compounded, by the way, by the anti-lobbyists nonsense. Thus, I suspect, the appointments problem.

So the lesson isn’t to pick a president with any particular background, although, sure, more experience(s) help. The lesson is to fill the White House with people from different backgrounds.

As far as the president…mostly what I want in presidents are really good politicians. Which you would think we would get, but unfortunately we often don’t.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.
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