Preparation for the presidency

By Michael Lynch

The New York Times reports on a new study which attempts to determine whether prior experience can help determine whether or not a president will be successful.  (The paper itself is available online.)  The authors of the study did not include any presidents who served before McKinley, so Lincoln wasn’t one of the test cases.  Since I had Lincoln on the brain when I read the summary in the Times, though, what struck me was how poorly this revered leader fit many of the indicators of presidential greatness.

Prior service in the military was one trait that stood out among exceptional presidents:

Perhaps the most consistent predictor of presidential greatness, Messrs. Uscinski and Simon found, is military service. Serving on active duty during both wartime and peacetime, as well as the number of years of service, is associated with higher scores in many domains, including crisis leadership, international relations, and economic management.

Lincoln’s military service was, of course, quite unexceptional, just a stint of less than three months in the militia during the Black Hawk War.  This period of his life wasn’t insignificant as far as his own career prospects were concerned, since he forged associations that would prove significant later in life, but his brief military career pales beside that of other nineteenth-century presidents such as Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison.  Yet today Lincoln’s administration of a gigantic military effort is considered one of his greatest accomplishments.  I noted that crisis management was an area where military men particularly excelled in office, but Lincoln’s meager military record didn’t seem to hinder his ability to handle a crisis.

Service in the federal government, either the executive or legislature branch, has few apparent effects. It typically matters only in narrower domains. So previous service as a federal administrator is associated, unsurprisingly, with perceived skill as an administrator. And previous service in Congress is associated with higher ratings in terms of relations with Congress.

That said, being an “outsider” is also not typically helpful. Years in public office at various levels (federal, state, local) is not significantly associated with most dimensions of greatness, but when it is, the relationships are almost always positive: experience helps. Moreover, outsiders — those with no federal experience — earn lower ratings on three dimensions.

This is interesting, because Lincoln’s only real experience with federal office before his election to the presidency was a term in the House of Representatives, but his relationship with Congress was often rocky, even when dealing with members of his own party.  Furthermore, although Lincoln was an experienced public servant by 1860, he gained that experience at the state level, and serving in a legislative rather than executive capacity.

And while the study’s authors found a positive correlation between holding a governorship of a large state and such indicators of presidential success as “public persuasion” and “moral authority,” Lincoln excelled in precisely those areas despite his lack of executive experience.  Lincoln’s administrative experience was mostly limited to running a small law office—and by all indications he was not a terribly conscientious office manager.

Perhaps the fact that the researchers restricted themselves to twentieth-century leaders has something to do with these discrepancies.  Perhaps these days the presidency is too intricate and complicated a task for a man of Lincoln’s limited managerial and executive experience.  Perhaps a man who preferred to camp out at the telegraph office in order to read dispatches as they came through would be unable to handle the modern American military, an international peacekeeping force with its assets scattered all over the globe.  Perhaps the ex-lawyer whose White House staff consisted of a handful of secretaries would find himself in over his head when faced with the bloated, labyrinthine bureaucracy of modern Washington.

Or perhaps Lincoln was that rare exception, a man whose leadership qualities were innate rather than acquired, whose remarkable gifts became apparent only when he was placed in a position where they proved necessary.  Identifying the ingredients of great leadership is probably always going to be a somewhat inexact science, because there will always be those leaders like Lincoln whose resumes give little indication of their capabilities.  To most contemporary observers, there was probably nothing noteworthy about the awkward man who took the oath in 1861, other than the fact that he didn’t look the part.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus.  He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.

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