Dwight D. Eisenhower; Oprah Winfrey (Credit: AP/Charles Gorry/Getty/Rich Polk/Salon)
Like everyone else who doesn’t own a crystal ball, I can’t say for certain whether Oprah Winfrey would make a good president or not. Recent polls suggest that Americans would vote for her over Trump — but would also prefer it if she didn’t run at all. Winfrey’s lack of experience, unsurprisingly, is one of the main factors cited.
Indeed, that same issue comes up whenever a prominent figure from the realm of entertainment or business or some other unrelated field hints at running for president. Recently we have heard such rumbles regarding Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, actor and former professional wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and any number of other men and women who have looked at Donald Trump — the first president ever elected without any political or military experience — and thought to themselves, “If he can do it, why not me?”
Before we can answer that question, we need to stop pretending that experience, or lack thereof, has any clear relationship to whether potential presidents are actually up to the job.
Set aside ideology for a moment and simply look at some of the presidents who got the most done. You have Abraham Lincoln, who led America through the Civil War and passed a number of milestone domestic and economic laws, yet had only served four terms in the Illinois legislature and one in the U.S. House of Representatives prior to his administration. Woodrow Wilson had served only half of a single term as governor of New Jersey before emerging as one of the most influential presidents of all time in both domestic and foreign policy.
Despite his distinguished military career, Dwight Eisenhower had no political experience whatever until he ran for president in 1952 — and wasn’t sure whether he wanted to run as a Republican or a Democrat. Today he is remembered as the moral leader who sent federal troops to desegregate the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, and warned us of the growing danger of the “military-industrial complex.”
Barack Obama was frequently derided during the 2008 election for his lack of experience — like Lincoln before him, Obama had less than a decade in the Illinois legislature followed by a brief tenure on Capitol Hill as a first-term senator — but he managed to save the economy from the Great Recession and pass the Affordable Care Act during his first two years in the White House.
By contrast, some of America’s most politically experienced presidents wound up being dismal failures. When James Buchanan became president in 1857, he had one of the most sterling résumés any elected official had brought to the job — service in both the House of Representatives and Senate, ambassadorships in Britain and Russia and a stint as secretary of state. Although Herbert Hoover’s main political experience upon being elected in 1928 came from eight years as secretary of commerce, he had been nicknamed “Undersecretary of Everything Else” because he used his power in that …read more