Governors in the White House: How Well Do They Do as President?

Quite a few governors end up as president. So what skills and experience could a state executive bring to the White House?
by | April 13, 2012

As the Republican presidential primary battle winds down to its inevitable climax -- the nomination of Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts -- it is a good time to analyze the strong historical linkage between serving as governor and serving as president.

Of the last six presidents, four -- Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- went directly from the governorship to the presidency without holding any elective office in between. (George H.W. Bush was vice president, of course, and Barack Obama was a U.S. senator.) Earlier presidents who took a turn in the governor's mansion include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and a host of others all the way back to Thomas Jefferson.

Of course, being a governor isn't the only path to presidential success. Lyndon B. Johnson, a legendary Senate Majority Leader, produced one of the most impressive legislative records ever assembled, for instance.

"The American presidency is so unique, there is no one formula to insure whoever occupies it will be successful," said Craig Shirley, a former aide to Reagan.

Despite that, I still wondered what impact gubernatorial experience has had on those in the White House. I focused my inquiry on the most recent four governors-turned-presidents, since their experiences seemed to shed the most light on a modern presidency.

I reached out to a wide range of presidential historians, former presidential aides and political analysts familiar with politics in the former presidents' home states. The experts noted that in most cases, the experience as governor greatly helped as president. In a few cases, though, a president applied lessons learned at the state level and found himself in a strategic dead-end.

First, the pluses of being a governor prior to becoming president:

Being a governor gives you experience with policy issues.

This one probably seems obvious, but it's worth noting nonetheless. When running for president, former governors have all the advantages of learning the policy ropes without assembling a lengthy record of votes on potentially controversial bills, amendments and procedural matters. (Remember Sen. John Kerry having to explain why he voted for a bill before voting against it?)

Gubernatorial administrations have to work with the federal government on an almost daily basis on issues such as Medicaid funding, federal highway planning, Department of the Interior mining rules, Army Corps of Engineers building projects or disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Each of the four presidents improved their policy chops to one degree or another, but several experts pointed to Bill Clinton as the clearest example. A natural wonk, Clinton's 12 years as Arkansas governor gave him the policy background to make a difference in Washington.

"Bill Clinton was probably the most knowledgeable president about policy matters in American history, or certainly one of the most," said David Greenberg, a Rutgers University historian who has authored biographies of Richard Nixon and Calvin Coolidge. "Working on these issues at the state level gave him a grasp of policy that served him well in many ways -- seeing the importance of pragmatism, learning to beat your political opponents with a superior grasp of information and being able to forge a new liberalism for the post-industrial era."

George W. Bush's agenda was shaped by his gubernatorial experience as well, said Clarke Rountree, a professor at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. The White House Office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives began had its roots in Texas, he said, as did Bush's national pushes for abstinence-based sex education, expanded tax cuts and greater education reform.

Being governor teaches you how to work with a legislative body.

"The collaborative nature of government, combined with the need to actually administer something, is a very good test for the presidency," said Evan Cornog, an associate dean at Columbia University's journalism school and author of The Power and the Story: How the Crafted Presidential Narrative has Determined Political Success from George Washington to George W. Bush.

The clearest exemple of a successful gubernatorial-legislative partnership -- one noted in interviews with both liberal and conservative analysts -- is Ronald Reagan. As governor of California, Reagan faced a Democratic Legislature led by political titans, initially Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh and then Unruh's Democratic successor, Bob Moretti. Such a lineup could have been a recipe for gridlock or worse, but Reagan's political gifts helped turn lemons into lemonade -- and his efforts in Sacramento foreshadowed the achievements he racked up while working with a Democratic Congress led by House Speaker Tip O'Neill in the 1980s.

Reagan was a "charmer" who assiduously engaged his negotiating partners personally even when there seemed to be little in common ideologically, said Stephen Knott, a United States Naval War College professor who co-authored At Reagan's Side: Insiders' Recollections from Sacramento to the White House.

Reagan's dealings with the legislature prepared him for the presidency on two levels, says journalist Lou Cannon. "He became familiar with how an opposition legislature responds to the proposals of a chief executive, and he found that he could forge personal relationships with leaders of the opposition," Cannon said. "That was crucial to his political development."

Despite articulating conservative principles, Reagan was open to compromise. Working with Moretti, Reagan cut a deal on welfare reform that served as something of a model for the national welfare reform that became law under Clinton.

During the welfare bill negotiations, Moretti calculated that he warred with Reagan for 17 days and nights, "line by line, statistic by statistic" and obscenity by obscenity, said Paul Kengor, a political scientist at Grove City College and author of several books about Reagan. "At times, Reagan would burn with frustration. It went on late at night until each man was too exhausted to fight anymore and called it a night. Grudgingly, Moretti came to respect Reagan, who he saw as hard on his principles but flexible in the details."

Being a governor forces you to develop down-to-earth political skills.

While being a governor offers the opportunity to exercise executive authority, it also requires a politician to remain close to one's constituents. The combination offers a bracing mix of theory and practice.

"Clinton learned the skills of retail politics and political caution during his own governorship," said Kevin Mattson, a historian at Ohio University and author of "What the Heck are You Up To, Mr. President?": Jimmy Carter, America 's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country. Clinton, he added, "also learned the permanent campaign style that he was so well-known for. He loved to get out and talk with people about what he was doing as a leader and getting citizens' feedback."

Being a governor puts you in an executive mindset and helps you assemble a team of battle-tested top aides.

"For Members of Congress, governing means legislating," said Jack Godwin, a political scientist at Sacramento State University and author of Clintonomics: How Bill Clinton Reengineered the Reagan Revolution. "But for the chief executive of a state, governing means administration -- managing a large organization, with lots of people and lots of money. Senior administrative experience at the state level is invaluable at the federal level."

The number of positions a governor is responsible for filling -- both in his own office and in executive agency appointments -- is far greater than the number any lawmaker is ever responsible for filling. So it's no surprise that presidents choose to rely on those with long records of service at the state level. And this gives governors-turned-presidents an edge.

"Governors will generally bring to the White House with them staff who are used to supporting someone in an executive role," said Peter G. Bourne, an Oxford University research fellow who was once an assistant to Carter and later authored the book Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography from Plains to the Post-Presidency. "A president from the legislative branch will bring staff from Capitol Hill who are inexperienced with the executive role and think only in terms of their own experience and how to get things done in the House or Senate."

It's worth noting that not all old-time hands proven equally beneficial to the president they served, from Bert Lance under Carter (who resigned due to controversies surrounding the bank he used to run) to Mike Deaver under Reagan (who was convicted of perjury after resigning from the White House staff) to members of Clinton's circle from Arkansas, a group whose actions inspired the long-running Whitewater investigation that led, circuitously, to Clinton's impeachment.

Still, an aide whose relationship was forged in battles at the state level can help present information in a way that is most helpful to an occupant of the Oval Office.

Consider Jody Powell, Carter's spokesman. "His experience traveling with Carter and serving as his spokesperson from the early days when the two of them were on the road alone helped Powell know his president better than did any of his predecessors," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidential scholar at Towson University. Carter's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, "also knew well Carter's political side and could anticipate what the president's response would be in individual situations," she said.

Being a governor offers a venue where one can make mistakes.

For Clinton, his loss of the governorship after one term -- and his successful effort to recapture it two years later -- taught him "that if you lose, you are not out," Kumar said. "It taught him not to give up when others might think you are finished. This experience helped him plot a reelection strategy in 1994 in spite of the Republican takeover of the House."

Clinton's early gubernatorial loss "encouraged a shift from his 'my way or the highway' approach during his first term as governor to an approach that later became known as triangulation," added Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College in Arkansas. "That way of governing shaped his race for the White House in 1992 and much of his presidency, much to the frustration of liberals and conservatives alike."

Reagan, for his part, was also irrevocably shaped by an experience from his tenure as governor -- his signing of a bill that eased the law governing abortions in California.

Kengor said that Reagan "had been convinced by some people, including within his own party and staff, that he had successfully eliminated the bill's worst features. He calculated that if he vetoed the bill, his veto would be overridden by the state Legislature, so he might as well try to make it less harmful." But the sharp increase in abortions that followed gave Reagan great remorse and shaped his future anti-abortion stance. Bill Clark, Gov. Reagan's future chief of staff, called the incident "perhaps Reagan's greatest disappointment in public life," according to Kengor, who is Clark's biographer.

Kengor (who's written a few books on Reagan) said he's "convinced that one of the reasons why Reagan was so staunchly and outspokenly pro-life during his presidency, making innumerable pro-life statements including in State of the Union addresses, was because of this mistake that haunted him from his gubernatorial years."

Despite a number of pluses, there's one pitfall for those who run for president with gubernatorial experience: Governors may draw the wrong conclusions from their state-level experiences.

Just because a strategy worked at the state level doesn't mean it will work at the federal level. "Sometimes, that familiarity can breed a form of overconfidence and a lack of due diligence that leads to overreaching in Washington," says Saladin M. Ambar, a Lehigh University political scientist and author of How Governors Built the Modern Presidency.

This is most clearly seen in Carter's experience in dealing with the Georgia Legislature, experts said.

"Carter was intellectually head and shoulders above most members of the Georgia Legislature, and he had a well-deserved contempt for them," said Bourne, the former Carter aide. "He started with the same view of Congress, but didn't appreciate that there were members with extraordinary experience and knowledge in certain areas, as well as gigantic egos."

Clinton, for his part, achieved many successes with Congress, even when it was controlled by the Republicans, but the biggest policy failure of his presidency stemmed in part from an approach he likely modeled on one of his key experiences as governor. In Arkansas, Hillary Clinton successfully spearheaded an education overhaul by negotiating with key stakeholders largely out of the public eye. In Washington, though, a similar strategy helped contribute to the administration's failure to pass a health-care overhaul.

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