Since the Employment Act of 1946 began shifting more actual responsibility for managing the economy from the Congress to the president, 12 men have served in that office. Of the 12, six were naval officers; three held law degrees; three ran businesses before becoming president; one never went to college; and only one had a MBA.
Now, two candidates for the Republican nomination, Herman Cain and Mitt Romney, hope to extend that list of businessmen turned president of the United States by at least one in November 2012. Their task will be to persuade America that a person who has run a business should be given the chance to help manage the economy.
If history is any indication, their task will be a tough one. Although the United States has never had a president whose credentials included being the chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company, three of the aforementioned dozen — Harry S Truman, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush — had experience as businessmen.
Unfortunately for those three, their business pedigrees could not overcome the sub-par economic growth they experienced during their tenures as president.
Using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis to rate the 12 and the current president on annual growth in gross domestic product, we find the former executive of a Texas oil firm and general manager of the Texas rangers, George W. Bush, polling at No. 9. The economy grew at approximately 2.07% while Bush, the only president to hold an MBA, was in office.
The haberdasher from Missouri, Harry S Truman, polls at No. 10. The buck definitely stopped at Truman’s desk, with the economy growing at an anemic annual rate of 1.43% during his eight years in office. At least old “Give ‘em Hell” Harry dressed well.
The peanut farmer from South Georgia, Jimmy Carter, took over the family’s agricultural business after his father died. The economy grew at a weak 2.14% per year during Carter’s presidency.
On the flipside, Bill Clinton, whose presidency is lauded by many Democrats as that great shining economic sea that America should sail back to, came in at No. 2 with a very respectable annual growth rate of 3.96%.
John F. Kennedy, who conservatives credit for instituting business tax cuts that spurred economic growth in the 1960s, polled at No. 3 with an annual growth rate of 3.56% during his almost three years of Camelot.
The Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, who is much revered by conservatives for pushing tax cuts (even though he eventually proposed raising taxes 11 times) polled at No. 4 with an annual growth rate of 3.40%.
None of the top performers had business degrees. While Reagan had an economics degree, Dutch studied the dismal science when classical liberalism’s laissez faire was still the dominant school of thought. The idea of fiscal policy was nearly non-existent during Reagan’s school years, even though he made much use of fiscal policy during his presidency.
Ironically, if we were to rely on any facet of work record to forecast performance on the economy, it would be a president’s military record. Nine of the 12 presidents had active duty military experience, with six of them (Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Carter, and George H.W. Bush) being naval officers.
Five of the six naval officers had annual growth rates exceeding 2%. Truman, who saw combat as an Army captain in World War I, and George H.W. Bush, a naval aviator during World War II, were the only former active duty military officers who saw annual growth rates below 2%.
Here are our poll standings, with annual GDP growth rates:
1. Lyndon B. Johnson — 4.37%
2. Bill Clinton — 3.96%
3. John F. Kennedy — 3.56%
4. Ronald Reagan — 3.40%
5. Gerald Ford — 2.68%
6. Dwight Eisenhower — 2.58%
7. Richard M. Nixon — 2.46%
8. Jimmy Carter — 2.14%
9. George W. Bush — 2.07%
10. Harry S Truman — 1.43%
11. Barack Obama — 1.43%
12. George H.W. Bush — 1.27%
So, it appears that unless Cain and Romney can tout active duty military service, we should expect a bit of sub-par performance from these two business executives as well.