Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > State Governors and the Presidency

Feb 12, 2021

State Governors and the Presidency

tags: presidential history

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.

It is often stated that being a state governor is the best qualification to be President of the United States, as it promotes and emphasizes executive experience--the actual day to day operation of a government--while being a US Senator does not provide the executive skills and background needed to be successful as a president.

However, when one examines the 45 people who have been president, from George Washington to Joe Biden, we discover that just 17, slightly more than a third, have had the experience of being responsible for the operation of a state government before the White House years.

And we discover that executive experience has actually been quite limited for most presidents who previously served as governors.

The one governor who stands out for years of executive experience is Bill Clinton, who was governor of Arkansas for 12 years, from 1979-1981 and 1983-1993.  Only one other governor had eight years of state leadership, Ronald Reagan as governor of California from 1967-1975.  And only two other governors, George W. Bush of Texas, with six years from 1995-2001, and Rutherford Hayes of Ohio, with five years in office, from 1868-1872, and 1876-1877, had more than four years in office. Those with four years include Andrew Johnson of Tennessee from 1853-1857, William McKinley of Ohio from 1892-1896, Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York from 1929-1933, and Jimmy Carter of Georgia from 1971-1975.

The following seven presidents only served two years in a state governorship: Thomas Jefferson of Virginia from 1779-1781; John Tyler of Virginia from 1825-1827; James K. Polk from 1839-1841; Grover Cleveland of New York from 1883-1885; Theodore Roosevelt of New York from 1899-1901; Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey from 1911-1913; and Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts from 1919-1921.  James Monroe of Virginia served three years from 1799-1802 and three months in 1811, and Martin Van Buren of New York served two and a half months in 1829.

Only six governors went directly from the state governorship to the White House, including Rutherford Hayes in 1877, Grover Cleveland in 1885, Woodrow Wilson in 1913, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, Bill Clinton in 1993, and George W. Bush in 2001.  And Cleveland and Wilson only had two short years in the governorship of their states before going to the White House.

New York, Virginia, Ohio, and Tennessee dominate the list of governors who became president, with New York (4) having Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt; Virginia (3) having Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler; Ohio (2) having Rutherford Hayes and William McKinley; and Tennessee (2) having James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson.  The remaining six states which had one governor make it to the White House were Arkansas with Bill Clinton; California with Ronald Reagan; Georgia with Jimmy Carter; Massachusetts with Calvin Coolidge; New Jersey with Woodrow Wilson; and Texas with George W. Bush.  Ironically, four of these six were all elected since 1976, and all six in the 20th century.

Also, four of the governors who became president succeeded from the vice presidency during a term, including John Tyler in 1841; Andrew Johnson in 1865; Theodore Roosevelt in 1901; and Calvin Coolidge in 1923, and only the last two were then elected to their own term as president.

And finally, if one was to see executive experience as including being a mayor of a city, there are only three such examples in the history of the American Presidency.  Andrew Johnson was mayor of Greeneville, Tennessee for a year from 1834-1835.  Grover Cleveland was mayor of Buffalo, New York for eleven months in 1882.  And Calvin Coolidge was mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts from 1910 to 1912.  Clearly, being mayors for such a short time and with cities of such small population, did not provide much of an example of executive experience.

So the conclusion is that being governors becoming president may be more dramatized as being the best experience for the Presidency, as the important issue of foreign policy and other national issues are not factors in leadership of state government or local governments.

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