Career Paths to the White House: Is there Such a Thing as the 'Presidential' Resume?


With the hype of the 2016 presidential election and one of the most diverse GOP fields in recent years (a real estate mogul, a former business executive, and a brain surgeon, along with the usual career politicians) I’ve found myself asking, is there a career path to the presidency that has made for a better president?

Is there such a magical combination of education, work experience and public offices held that makes for a better president?

For this analysis I used a list of president favorability rankings as compiled by the brilliant Nate Silver - with an estimated position for President Obama based on second term voting data. It can be found here.

For the purpose of the following analyses, I averaged these rankings for the presidents in each specific grouping (former governors, senators, lawyers, etc.) to find the average ranking of the group as a whole.

For example, Franklin D. Roosevelt (2), Richard Nixon (29), Gerald Ford (24), Bill Clinton (18), and Barack Obama (17), have an average ranking of 18. The lower the average number, the more favorable the grouping.


Career background: Military vs. law

The overwhelming majority of US Presidents have some sort of background in the military or law. 17 presidents have a background in law, 16 a background in the military, 8 have a background in both military and law, and Presidents Hoover and Harding stand alone as the only two without a background in either field (Hoover was an engineer, Harding a publisher and editor).

Also calculated the military/law groupings by era:

Looking at the previous presidential resumes, it certainly seems favorable to have either a legal or military background. While there isn’t a big difference in the average ranking between legal and military backgrounds, there is a big difference between those with a background in those fields and those without.

The only two presidents without legal or military experience, Herbert Hoover and Warren G. Harding, are considered poor presidents ranking 35 and 41 respectively. You can read the list of presidents in each category here on page 2. 

Government Positions Held

I would assume experience in elected offices of the government would be an important prerequisite for successful presidents, with the office of the Vice President being the closest experience to the actual thing. Here’s how the presidents and their prior government positions stacked up (accounting for those with multiple positions):

Congressman  - 19 presidents (24.95 avg. rank)

Governors - 17 presidents (20 avg. rank)

Senator - 16 presidents (26.63 avg. rank)

Vice President - 14 presidents (22.57 avg. rank)

Generals - 12 presidents (27.08 avg. rank)

Cabinet - 9 presidents (22.33 avg. rank)


How many Government Positions Held? 

One position - 17 presidents (17.47)

Two positions - 12 presidents (21.66)

Three positions - 9 presidents (26.33)

Four positions - 4 presidents (29.75)

It seems that the most successful grouping are those presidents who only held one other high position in the government before taking the White House, this group including the top three presidents (Lincoln, FDR, and Washington).

Oddly enough, on average, the more positions the president held before taking office, the worse his rank becomes. Andrew Johnson held 5 positions (VP, general, congressman, senator, and governor) and is considered one of the worst presidents while the number one ranked Abraham Lincoln only held one prior government position as a congressman.

Across the board former generals who only served as a general and nothing else scored significantly better than generals who served other positions as well. The same can be said for governors.

General and no other position -  4 presidents (16.75 avg. rank)

Washington, Taylor, Grant, Eisenhower

General and other position(s) - 8 presidents (32.25 avg. rank)

 Jackson, W.H. Harrison, Pierce, Johnson, Hayes, Arthur, Garfield, B. Harrison

Governor and no other position - 7 presidents (17.43 avg. rank)

Cleveland, Wilson, FDR, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, G.W. Bush

Governor and other position(s) - 10 presidents (21.8 avg. rank)

Jefferson, Monroe, Van Buren, Tyler, Polk, Johnson,  Hayes, McKinley, T. Roosevelt, Coolidge



No college degree - 12 presidents  (21.42 avg. rank)

Any College Degree - 31 presidents (22.23 avg. rank)

Ivy League School - 13 presidents (17.31 avg. rank) - taken out of the 31 total with any college degree

There’s little difference in the average rankings between the thirty-one Presidents that hold college degrees and the twelve that do not.  It should be noted that of the thirteen post WWII presidents, Truman is the only one without a college degree. Six of the thirteen post WWII presidents hold degrees from Ivy League schools.


This is an easy one. James Buchanan was the only bachelor president and is ranked poorly at 43. Let’s move on.

Wealth (Net worth measured in today’s dollar)

Under $1 million -- 10 presidents (24.5 avg. rank)

$1 – $9.9 million -- 12 presidents (28.1 avg. rank)

$10 – $50 million -- 11 presidents (20.9 avg. rank)

Over $50 million -- 10 presidents (13.4 avg. rank)

Wealth by era: 

It's worth noting that George Washington ($525 million) and John F. Kennedy ($1 billion) are two significant outliers. Here's the data with the outliers removed:

Age Entering Office

Under 50 - 9 presidents (19.44 avg. rank)

50-54 - 13 presidents (25.9 avg. rank)

55-59 - 12 presidents (20 avg. rank)

60-69 - 10 presidents (21.5 avg. rank)

Worth noting that our two best ranked presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, were ages 51 and 52 when they entered office, respectively.

Region of Birth

North East - 14 presidents (24.3 avg. rank)

South - 14 presidents (18.6 avg. rank)

Midwest - 11presidents (25.6 avg. rank)

West - 2 presidents (23 avg. rank)

Southwest - 2 presidents (10 avg. rank)

These results are naturally a little biased. Since certain states have existed longer than others, it would be unfair to compare the small sample size of presidents from the west and southwest to the larger sample size of the other regions. (Worth noting that 6 of the 7 presidents born in Virginia were elected before 1850)


After looking through the numbers I’m not convinced the pedigree makes the president. There’s no way to predict that a candidate with a law degree is better than one with a military background. There’s no solid statistical evidence former Army Generals make better presidents than former senators – there’s plenty of examples of great and terrible presidents from each chosen career path.

Take Andrew Johnson vs. Abraham Lincoln. Johnson held five government positions before his presidency in comparison to Lincoln’s one. We all know how that turned out.

I found it interesting that following the Civil War five consecutive (and 6 out of 7) military generals were elected to the White House. That’s what the time called for and whom the voters decided was the best for the job. It seems huge turning points in history call for great presidents; the Revolution and the founding of the nation, George Washington; the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln; and WWII, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

This analysis is not to say that the next president should follow this criteria exactly, it’s simply analyzing the previous 43 US presidents and their resumes before taking office.

Complete ranking lists and links to sources


Sean Packard