But try telling that to Herman Cain’s supporters.
The former pizza mogul, who has never held elected office, jumped to the top of the polls in the Republican primary race in no small part by making a virtue of his lack of political experience. “I’m not a professional politician,” Cain repeatedly boasts on the stump, to huge applause. “I’m a professional problem solver.”
But can a political neophyte really be an effective president, especially at a time when strong-willed career politicians are even more intensely polarized? New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie doesn’t think so. In declining to run for president, he said, "I am not arrogant enough to believe that after one year as governor...I am ready to be president of the United States." Instead, he endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, citing both Romney’s private and public sector experience.
Before dismissing Cain’s candidacy, however, it is worth remembering that Neustadt’s reference to “amateurs” was a thinly veiled shot at Dwight David Eisenhower—a president, Neustadt suggested, whose lack of political experience prevented him from fully using the levers of presidential power. Since Neustadt first leveled this charge in 1960, Eisenhower’s historical stock has risen, fueled in no small part by the dismal performance of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, two of the more seasoned politicos who followed him into office. In comparison, the eight years of relative peace and prosperity under Eisenhower began to take on a new sheen.
The debate regarding what experiences are a prerequisite for presidential effectiveness is nothing new. Writing in Federalist Paper #72, Alexander Hamilton cites “the adage of truth” that “experience is the parent of wisdom.” Extolling the virtues of experience, however, does not tell us which ones best prepare for the presidency. In fact, Hamilton praises experience to buttress his opposition to presidential term limits; he suggests that the best preparation for the presidency is to have already served.
Before we take this as an endorsement of Barack Obama’s reelection bid, note that the modern historical record is littered with the wreckage of second-term presidents who—through political miscalculation and the hubris born of electoral success—embroiled the nation in some of its worst political controversies. These include Franklin D. Roosevelt’s failed court-packing scheme, Nixon’s Watergate cover-up, Reagan’s Iran-contra affair and Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal. Obviously, even presidential experience is no guarantee of effective leadership.
And so, the question remains. What experiences should we look for in a presidential candidate? The answer depends on what we want from the presidency itself. Specifically, voters may deem a candidate’s inexperience, or at least a lack of ties to the professional political class, to be a virtue when they seek to change political direction.