President Barack Obama didn’t hesitate to use a little hyperbole in making the case for Hillary Clinton during the convention: "There has never been a man or a woman, not me, not Bill, nobody more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America," he said. Then, in a joking aside: "I hope you don't mind, Bill, but I was just telling the truth, man."
It’s true Clinton has more foreign policy experience than most recent nominees. She’s far more politically experienced than Obama was. And due to her time as first lady, she’s even actually lived in the White House.
But the most qualified?
Defining a Most Qualified President Ever quickly runs into some problems of comparison. How do you compare Clinton to Dwight Eisenhower, who had little political experience per se but who also led the multinational military effort to defeat Nazi Germany prior to running for office?
The other question is whether this is even a good metric to judge a candidate: After all, if a president’s pre-White House qualifications were the sole determining factor of fitness for office, we’d be honoring the very qualified James Buchanan, not the vastly underqualified Abraham Lincoln.
Hillary Clinton is, in fact, pretty qualified
Hillary Clinton’s political résumé is much longer than Obama’s was when he took office. She served as secretary of state for four years, and for eight years was the junior senator from New York. She ran in two very competitive Democratic primaries. As first lady, she led Bill Clinton’s push for health care reform, meaning she played a significant policy role on the White House staff. If elected, she’d be the first Cabinet member to become president since 1928, and one of the few with significant foreign policy experience in the postwar era.
Clinton has also actually lived in the White House before and, as the wife of a former president, has more direct knowledge of the demands of the presidency than all but a handful of people.
So yes, she’s pretty qualified.
On the other hand, unlike 18 of the past 44 presidents, Clinton has never been a governor, meaning she has no direct experience trying to pass a comprehensive agenda through a legislature while being directly accountable to voters. She’s never served in the military. She’s worked for a law firm, but she hasn’t run a business.
This isn’t a knock on Clinton; there are only so many things a person can do in one lifetime. But they’re all things that past presidents have done. Qualifications for the presidency aren’t an objective multiple-choice test, but an essay question — there are just too many branching paths a person could take, and too many types of experiences a person could have.
Still, it’s safe to say that compared with many past presidents, Clinton stacks up pretty well.
The first 50 years of America featured some absurdly qualified presidents
Many of America’s earliest presidents had extensive experience before taking office. Thomas Jefferson was governor of Virginia, secretary of state, and ambassador to France (and wrote the Declaration of Independence). James Monroe was secretary of war, secretary of state, governor of Virginia, ambassador to both the United Kingdom and France, and a senator.
It goes on. Martin Van Buren was a senator, governor, state attorney general, secretary of state, and ambassador. John Quincy Adams served in the House, the Senate, and was ambassador to three major nations before becoming secretary of state and then president. All of these candidates’ pre-White House experiences easily rival or surpass Clinton’s.
Presidential résumés started to get a lot less impressive after Andrew Jackson took office in 1828 — particularly concerning foreign policy. (Still, there are some impressive exceptions. William Howard Taft was the colonial governor of the Philippines and Cuba, as well as secretary of war, a solicitor general, and a judge.)
Meanwhile, the only presidents after World War II to have significant foreign policy experience before reaching the White House were Dwight Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush. Eisenhower had never held any other elected office. Bush, who had also been the US ambassador to the UN, vice president and director of the CIA, arguably has the résumé closest to Clinton’s — although, unlike her, he’d never held statewide elected office.
Experience isn’t a great predictor of success
Comparing the resumes of presidential nominees quickly becomes a game of apples and oranges. Which candidate had more experience: Millard Fillmore, who’d been vice president, or Ulysses S. Grant, who led the victorious Union Army during the Civil War?
It’s hard to say. But it might not really matter: There doesn’t seem to be much correlation between the strength of a presidential candidate’s résumé and how history judges them after they’ve served in the White House.
In 1857, James Buchanan became president with a résumé just as impressive as Clinton’s (terms in the House and Senate, ambassador to Russia and the United Kingdom, secretary of state). After four years, he was succeeded by a man with remarkably thin qualifications — Abraham Lincoln had only served one term in the US House of Representatives before famously losing a Senate election.
But all that experience meant little. Buchanan went down in history as the man who couldn’t stop the impending Civil War, and Lincoln ended up with the giant memorial on the National Mall for saving the Union.
Similarly, Herbert Hoover, the last member of the Cabinet to become president, had a sterling reputation as an effective crisis manager and humanitarian before he moved into the White House, and as a world traveler who had lived in several countries. He’d managed food relief in Europe during and after World War I, helping save millions of people from starvation; as secretary of commerce, he directed relief after Mississippi River floods left more than 600,000 people homeless.
Then he became president in 1928 and oversaw the beginning of the Great Depression. "A great crisis manager and humanitarian" was not his legacy.
Many of the most effective presidents, on the other hand, had résumés that were perfectly adequate at best. Obama had served four years in the Senate; he ended up passing historic legislation and redefining the Democratic Party. Reagan had been governor of California and an actor. Franklin D. Roosevelt was governor of New York.
Qualifications are a fine thing to have. But history suggests they’re far from the most important thing when it comes to effective presidential leadership.