Past Performance Does Not Predict Future Results

Business consultant Roger Bloom has an op-ed in The Orange County Register on the role of experience in choosing presidents:

The fact is, Barack Obama already has more pre-presidential experience in government than three of the four guys on Mount Rushmore. Of those greats, only Thomas Jefferson surpasses Obama’s 11-plus years in elective office, comprising almost eight years in the Illinois Senate and 3 1/2 years in the U.S. Senate.

In contrast, how about this for experience: member of the Pennsylvania Legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate (with multiple terms in each body), not to mention secretary of state, ambassador to Russia and ambassador to Great Britain.

Sounds pretty solid, right? It seems to have it all: state and federal, legislative and executive, domestic and foreign. It’s even more impressive than Sen. McCain’s 25 years in Congress. In fact, it’s arguably the most extensive and expansive government resume of anyone ever elected president of the United States.

And it belonged to James Buchanan – often ranked by modern historians as the worst president ever.

Luckily for the country, Buchanan was followed by Abraham Lincoln, perhaps our greatest president. But Lincoln’s prior experience was modest at best: eight years in the Illinois Legislature and a single two-year term in the House. And he’d been out of office entirely for 12 years before winning the highest office in the land.

But Lincoln’s 10 years of pre-presidential government experience is hardly the lightest of resumes among the nation’s chief executives. For instance, Lincoln is joined in granite immortality in South Dakota by Teddy Roosevelt (a year as assistant Navy secretary, two years as New York governor and six months as vice president) and George Washington (a few months total in the first and second Continental Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, plus eight years as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army).

Presidents ranked in the next tier, call them the near-great, include Andrew Jackson, Dwight Eisenhower, Woodrow Wilson – none of whom had more than four years of government experience going in – and, sometimes, Ronald Reagan, who had eight years as governor of California.

Meanwhile, keeping company with Buchanan near the bottom of most rankings are Richard Nixon and Andrew Johnson, who both entered the presidency with extensive electoral resumes encompassing most of their adult lives. Other heavy hitters on paper who, while not total busts, generally land in the middle or lower in historical rankings, are John Q. Adams, Gerald Ford, William Taft, George H.W. Bush and Martin Van Buren.

So it appears there is a relationship between governmental experience and presidential prowess all right, but it’s inverse.

He next presents some examples of people with experience who did go on to be good presidents, as well as those with little experience who went on to be poor presidents. With experience turning out to be a poor predictive factor, he concludes:

So it seems that presidents are like mutual funds: past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.

Maybe George Bernard Shaw was closer than Jimi Hendrix to having it right. Shaw said, “Men are wise in proportion, not to their experience, but to their capacity for experience.”

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a comment