The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Hillary Clinton the ‘most experienced’ presidential candidate in history?

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During his video endorsing Hillary Clinton's candidacy, President Obama made a claim that's become common in recent months.

"Look, I know how hard this job can be. That's why I know Hillary will be so good at it," he said. "In fact, I don't think that there's ever been someone so qualified to hold this office."

Obama then proceeds to articulate personal qualities that he thinks recommend Clinton for the job -- courage, heart, etc. -- but lets the "most qualified" line lie. Others have made the same vague claim in other ways, of course, occasionally putting Clinton forward as the "most qualified" or "most experienced" candidate in history.

That's something that we thought was worth consideration.

"Qualified" and "experienced" are not the same thing, of course. You might be qualified for a job working the grill at McDonald's, but you may not have any experience in it. In a literal sense, the qualifications for the presidency are remarkably easy to attain: You have to be 35 and be a natural born citizen of the United States. As you expand outward, they become more nebulous, as we've seen over the course of the campaign. In April, Bernie Sanders suggested that Hillary Clinton may not be qualified for the presidency by virtue of her having voted for the war in Iraq and having allowed a super PAC to raise and spend money on her behalf. This was mostly a rhetorical point, but it's to the point: "Qualified" is in the eye of the beholder.

So we figured we'd look at experience, which obviously overlaps with qualifications. The simplest way to prove that you deserve a managerial job at McDonald's, after all, is to prove that you've held similar jobs in the past. But this, too, is subjective. What experience counts toward the presidency? Donald Trump would and does argue that his years of experience in running a business offers the sort of experience the job requires. Fans of Dwight Eisenhower and Ulysses Grant would argue that military leadership is the sort of thing that counts -- or, at least, one of the sorts of things.

We decided to focus on government and military experience, since that's the sort of thing that has been most common among past presidents, and since it allows us to compare Clinton's experience to that of those in the past. Here's that comparison, looking at experience prior to inauguration.

There's lots of light blue on that chart, representing tenure in the House and Senate. There's also lots of dark blue -- experience in the executive branch, including serving as vice president. Several presidents spent extensive periods of time in the military, as well. Some, like Abraham Lincoln, didn't have much experience in government at all.

Clinton has two decades of an unprecedented sort of experience: marriage to and partnership with a chief executive. Does this count? Should it? We've shaded those parts of Clinton's life in the graph above, but the way those questions are answered is up to you.

The next thing we'll note is that there have been a lot of presidents with a lot of diverse experience in the past. John Quincy Adams was a senator, like Clinton, and served as secretary of state, like Clinton. He also served in the House (albeit after his presidency) and as an ambassador to various countries. Martin Van Buren was a senator, a secretary of state, a governor, an ambassador and a vice president. That's a decent resume. More recently, George H. W. Bush is a veteran who was a member of the House, U.N. ambassador, director of the CIA and vice president. Is that more experience than Clinton? Is it less?

Mind you, this is only presidents we're looking at, not candidates. Hubert Humphrey was a senator, vice president, and mayor of a large city, Minneapolis. Bob Dole was a World War II veteran who served in the House and Senate for decades. No Martin Van Buren, but certainly experienced.

Obviously, Hillary Clinton has more government experience than most, and more going into the job than have past presidents. Whether or not she has the most experience, much less is the most qualified, is the sort of evaluation that will vary from person to person -- and voter to voter. For millions of Americans in this unusual election year, Trump's lack of government experience is precisely the sort of qualification they're looking for.