by Jordan Michael Smith
Mitt Romney’s chief qualification for the presidency, according to Mitt Romney, is his experience in the private sector. “[S]omeone who spent their career in the economy is more suited to help fix the economy than someone who spent his life in politics and as a community organizer,” he said in a recent interview.
But is that really true? Romney would hardly be the first man in the White House with extensive private sector experience, so we can test his claim by looking at the records of other 20th century presidents who came from business backgrounds. And those records suggest that private sector experience is by no means a guarantee of of a good president. In fact, it’s anything but.
Let’s begin at the bottom. That is where Warren Harding, president from 1921 to 1923, routinely ranks in historians’ presidential rankings. There’s little doubt Harding was a skilled businessman. After he bought an Ohio newspaper, the Marion Daily Star, and launched a weekly edition, the paper became one of the most popular in the country. Harding then profitably bumped off its rival to become the official organ for Marion’s governmental notices.
But none of that success made Harding a good president. The administration is most notable for its foreign-policy isolationism and a plethora of scandals culminating in the Teapot Dome Affair, called by one historian “the greatest and most sensational scandal in the history of American politics” before Watergate.
Next up is Herbert Hoover, who founded the Zinc Corporation in 1905 and was a wildly successful investor, making $4 million by 1914—$92 million in today’s dollars. “If a man has not made a million dollars by the time he is forty, he is not worth much,” Hoover once said.
But like Harding, Hoover turned out to be pretty much worthless as president. His policies helped grease the skids for the 1929 stock market crash, and most historians agree that his hands-off response helped trigger the Great Depression. Indeed, the day after the crash, Hoover said, “The fundamental business of the country, that is the production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis.” His foreign policy wasn’t much better: He did little to stop the nascent Japanese aggression that would ultimately lead to Pearl Harbor. A 2010 survey ranked him as 36th of 43 presidents.
Aside from Hoover, Jimmy Carter was perhaps the most successful businessman to become president. He took over his father’s failed peanut-farming business and turned it around, making himself a wealthy man by the time he ran for Georgia’s governorship.
Again though, Carter wasn’t able to translate his peanut prowess into presidential success. Between stagflation, an energy crisis, the Iran Hostage Crisis and rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Carter was arguably the worst Democratic president of the 20th century. Indeed, despite being the sitting president, he nearly lost a primary challenge to Ted Kennedy in 1980, before being ousted from office by Ronald Reagan that fall. Carter averages 27th in the rankings.
George H. W. Bush, too, was an extremely successful businessman, working his way up from sales clerk in an oil corporation to founding his own two profitable oil companies. By the time he ran for Congress in 1966, he was a millionaire.
Bush 41 wasn’t a bad president—but neither was he a good one. His strength was foreign policy, where he skillfully wound down the Cold War and won the first Gulf War. But the economy spiraled into recession on his watch. Unable to convince Americans he knew how to fix it, Bush lost his 1992 re-election bid to Bill Clinton.
Bush’s son, George W., was less successful in the oil business. The company he founded, the aptly named Arbusto, nearly went belly-up before being sold. But he did do OK as the co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, improving their performance and making a ton of cash. As for his presidency? Well, you know that disaster.
One other businessman-turned-president bears mention here. Harry Truman co-owned a haberdashery which went bankrupt in 1921. And yet, most historians agree Truman was a better president than any of those mentioned above. He implemented the strategy that would eventually lead to victory in the Cold War, recognized Israel, bravely avoided intervening in China, stared down Joe McCarthy, and helped usher in a period of robust and broad-based economic growth. Though unpopular when he left office, he is routinely ranked among the top 10 presidents, and has ranked as high as fifth in one scholarly survey.
None of this is to say that being a good businessman makes you a bad president, or vice versa. Whether there’s any correlation at all is hard to say, given the small size of the sample. But that’s just it. Romney’s central argument, boiled down to its essence, is that his private-sector success will necessarily translate into success in the Oval Office. And modern history tells a very different story.
Jordan Michael Smith is a Contributing Writer at Salon.