Akst: These presidents gave us the business
Nobody likes having another person's politics shoved down his throat.
Yet there I was, all set for my endoscopy, when the gastroenterologist started complaining about President Barack Obama. One gripe especially stuck in my craw: "He's never even had a job."
That's ridiculous, I said; Obama has been a professor at a top law school, and of course he was a community organizer.
"A real job," the doctor insisted, meaning a job in business (and presumably not medicine).
Now that we know the presumptive Republican nominee is Mitt Romney, who succeeded in business, it's worth asking if experience in the private sector predicts success in the White House. To find out, I consulted Barbara Perry, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, which focuses on the presidency. Perry was able to tell me nearly every president's line of work outside of politics.
So were my gastroenterologist's concerns misplaced? Not at all. It's important to know whether a president has worked in business. It's important because having worked in business is associated with being a lousy president, at least in the modern era.
Before 1900, there wasn't much alternative to trade or farming, so we'll set this early crowd aside. Since then, the presidents who've most prominently worked in business are both George Bushes (oil), Ronald Reagan (movies and advertising, although he was also a labor leader), Jimmy Carter (peanut farming), Harry Truman (haberdasher) and Herbert Hoover (engineer).
With the exception of Truman, whose business failed, these weren't especially good presidents, at least according to the 238 presidential scholars polled by the Siena College Research Institute in 2010. As far as I can tell, only the Bushes and Carter owned successful businesses -- and all three presided over serious economic downturns while in office. Carter and the first Bush were one-term presidents. The second Bush was catastrophic, finishing 39th of 43 in Siena's survey.
Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Calvin Coolidge and William McKinley were lawyers, however inconsequentially, and spent a little time in private practice. Most of them weren't very good presidents either. Harding, a newspaper publisher who wanted "less government in business and more business in government," was a joke.
Having little or no business experience doesn't guarantee success; look at Lyndon Johnson. But it seems to help. Dwight Eisenhower (a soldier) was a good president. And four of the best since 1900 spent little or no time in private enterprise.
Take Theodore Roosevelt. He was many things, but mainly he was a public servant -- and a superb president, scoring major advances in conservation, public health and business regulation. Like Obama, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, except TR actually earned his (mediating the Russo-Japanese War).
Woodrow Wilson was another fine president who never had a "real" job. An academic, as president he kept us out of the Great War until 1917, and then delivered victory for the Allies. He gave us the progressive income tax, the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission, and a precursor to the United Nations.
The accomplishments of Franklin Roosevelt -- Siena's No. 1! -- need no recounting; it's only worth noting that he was an indifferent lawyer for a few years before devoting himself to public life.
Bill Clinton, another law professor, presided over what seems now a golden age of peace and prosperity. He also balanced the federal budget. No surprise there. He hadn't had a "real" job before the White House -- which means he was supremely qualified.
Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board.