Four years ago, many Republicans argued that Barack Obama, as a fourth-year Senator, was not qualified to be President. Now Democrats are making similar claims about Mitt Romney, who was elected to his one term in elected office a decade ago. When considering the qualifications of the current Commander in Chief and his challenger, I started pondering the resumes of former Presidents, and how their prior experiences were comparable.

This will be split into two sections: both counting down from the middle because the extremes are more interesting. Of the 43 men to serve as President, who were the most qualified? And who were the least qualified?

I do favor Presidents who had diverse experiences, as opposed to those who spent a lot of time in one position. For the purposes of the ranking, it’s probably better to have someone who spent four years as Congressman and four years as Governor, instead of someone who spent ten years in the Senate or eight years as Governor. Though it’s always beneficial to hold leadership positions in legislatures and to spend a certain amount of time in the various positions. Martin Van Buren does not get a lot of credit for the two months he spent as Governor of New York.

I may make significant mistakes due to a lack of awareness of what distinguished a legislator who went on to become President, or what a specific job entailed. I’m an English major and a dilettante on this subject, so there’s always the possibility I will be very mistaken on a qualification, exaggerating the significance of something that looks good on paper, or ignoring the significance of something that is seemingly inconsequential.

With the Vice-Presidents who ascended to the Presidency upon the death or resignation of their successors, I’m considering their qualifications when they took the oath of office.

We’ll start the countdown with a President whose qualifications were middle of the road.

22. John Tyler

He was easily the nation’s worst ex-president due to his support of the confederacy during the Civil War. He served in both houses of Congress, with two and a half terms in the House of Representatives and eight years in the Senate. He also held executive office, having spent barely two years as Governor of Virginia, at that point a mostly powerless position. When he was chosen as William Henry Harrison’s running mate, his most recent accomplishment had been as a member of Virginia’s constitutional convention.

21. Ronald Reagan

Before he became President, Reagan spent eight years as a the Governor of one of the largest states in the nation. The six year gap between his tenures as Chief Executives of California and of the United States allowed him to be a prominent spokesman for his party.

20. Martin Van Buren

He is the only man other than Thomas Jefferson to serve as Secretary of State, Vice President and President. His tenure as Secretary of State was uneventful, and meant that he would only serve as Governor of New York for 2 1/2 months, which probably isn’t enough time to develop executive experience. He wasn’t head of the state department for very long, as he had to resign due to the petticoat affair. However, he remained an unofficial adviser for President Jackson as a member of his kitchen cabinet, selected as Jackson’s running mate in the next election, and his successor in the election after that. Before this, he had been a generic Senator for eight years, and a state legislator for eight more, four of which he spent as state Attorney General.

19. Herbert Hoover

A mining engineer who became very wealthy, Hoover was considered a potential presidential contender in 1920 on the strength of his relief work in Europe during, and after, the first World War. Prior to that, he had been head of the US Food Administration under Woodrow Wilson. His 1920 primary bid failed, but as a consolation prize, he spent eight years as a powerful Secretary of Commerce before he became the Republican party’s standard-bearer in 1928.

18. William Howard Taft

As Secretary of War, he was sometimes essentially the acting Secretary of State. Before that, he was a Military Governor of the Philippines. He also had an impressive legal career, as a judge in the Ohio Superior Court at 30, and Solicitor General at 32, which earned him an Appellate Court judgeship at 34.

17. Richard Nixon

He was considered the first modern Vice President, due to the responsibilities he held in the Eisenhower administration. He was simply the most prominent VP since John Adams, chairing Cabinet and National Security Council meetings during Eisenhower’s absences, defending America’s industrial accomplishments in a debate with Khrushchev, and undertaking several major foreign trips. Before that, he had a notable six-year career as a young virulently anti-communist bomb-thrower in Congress.

16. William McKinley

As a legislator, McKinley was significant enough that he launched a credible bid for Speaker of the House, and became Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He also had a respectable military career in the 23rd Ohio Infantry during the Civil War, serving as a Captain and earning the rank of Brevet Major. Finally, he served for four years as Governor of Ohio, although it was a weak office, prominent mainly due to Ohio’s role as the most crucial swing state.

15. Theodore Roosevelt

Teddy had a lot of odd experiences before he spent two years as Governor of the most populated state in the Union. He was an accomplished state legislator who took advantage of an year-long stint in a mid-level Cabinet post to be a rather consequential Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He was also a successful reformer as president of the board of New York City Police Commissioners, the predecessor to the post of Police Commissioner which he created as Governor.

14. George HW Bush

He had an interesting biography before his eight years as Vice-President. After a successful career as a Houston oil man and an unsuccessful bid for Senate, he was a busier than usual two-term Congressman, first considered as a potential Nixon running mate after just two years in the House. After his second failed Senate bid, he became Chairman of the RNC and Director of the CIA. His most significant duty prior to national office may have been his role as unofficial ambassador to China at a consequential time.

13. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

He wasn’t the most qualified Vice-Presidential nominee in 1920, although he had been Assistant Secretary of Navy during the first World War. But that was before he served for two terms as Governor of New York.

12. Dwight Eisenhower

It’s difficult to gauge the applicability of military service to duties as President, but of the Generals turned President, Ike did have the most international experience, so I’m ranking him higher than most. He also served as President of Columbia University, although that was largely a ceremonial title, which he essentially abandoned to become Supreme Commander of NATO.

11. William Henry Harrison

As President, he is most notable for how quickly he died. He was the oldest man ever elected to the office until Ronald Reagan. But those years allowed him to build up an impressive record, as a legislator, executive and military commander. In any of those three fields, he built up a CV more impressive than a few Presidents. Harrison briefly served in Congress as a delegate from the Northwest territory, before he became the Governor of the Indiana Territory for twelve years. During his later years in that office, he served as Commander of the Army in Indiana during the War of 1812. He then returned to Congress, serving as a Representative for Ohio. Later he became the state’s senator and an ambassador to Columbia.

10. Lyndon B. Johnson

LBJ’s Vice-Presidency was inconsequential, but he has the most impressive legislative resume of any many to become President. His two terms in the Senate included ten years in leadership positions: two years as Senate Majority Whip, two years as Minority Leader and six years as Majority Leader. While in Congress, he also served in the Navy.

9. Andrew Johnson

He is widely considered one of our worst Presidents, but the list of elected and appointed offices he held was actually quite impressive. The only man to ever serve in every possible local and federal elected office, Johnson served as Tennessee State Representative, Tennessee State Senator, Congressman, Governor, Senator, and Vice-President. He had also been a small-town mayor, as well as Military Governor of Tennessee during the Civil War.

8. George Washington

The most consequential General in American history, and savior of the Articles of Confederation, Washington has the least impressive resume of any of the first six Presidents.

7. John Adams

He was a major figure during the Revolutionary War, and later the first ambassador to the United Kingdom. He spent eight years as a loyal veep to Washington, before that position became mostly insignificant for a century and a half. He was notable for casting more tie-breaking votes than any Vice-President since. He largely wrote the Massachusetts constitution, the first in the world to feature a bicameral legislature and a distinct executive, as well as mechanisms for the executive to veto legislation, and for the legislators to override the veto.

6. James Buchanan

His five terms in Congress included two years as Chairman of the Judiciary committee. After an year as Andrew Jackson’s Ambassador to Russia, he spent twelve years as a Senator from Pennsylvania, at the time the second most populated state in the country.  He later served as James Polk’s Secretary of State, and Franklin Pierce’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom. As with Andrew Johnson, there’s a tremendous gap between his reputation as President and his qualifications for the office.

5. John Quincy Adams

John Adams Jr served as a prominent Senator, and Ambassador to four different nations (Prussia, The Netherlands, Russia, The United Kingdom) prior to his appointment for two terms as Secretary of State, when that was essentially a stepping stone to the Presidency, and the #2 position in the country. Before that, he was also the nations’ chief negotiator in the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. As a former President turned Representative, he would later become the most ridiculously overqualified member of the US Congress in the history of the institution.

4. James Polk

He’s the only Speaker of the House to ever become President, which makes him among the most accomplished of the many legislators to ever hold the office. LBJ is the only Commander in Chief whose legislative experience ranks higher than Polk’s, but Young Hickory (one of two Andrew Jackson proteges to become President) also served for two years as the ninth Governor of Tennessee.

3. James Monroe

He was a Governor of Virginia, Senator, Secretary of State, acting Secretary of War during the close of the War of 1812, ambassador and Revolutionary War hero. Say what you will about the founding fathers, the ones who became President had some impressive resumes.

2. James Madison

With him, you have to ask the question: How do you rank “Wrote the bill of rights” as a qualification for the White House? I would say that that it’s pretty damn high on the list. Madison was was also a founding member of Congress, and Secretary of State under Jefferson. During that period, he was partly responsible for the Louisiana Purchase. And he also played a significant role in the Constitutional Convention.

1. Thomas Jefferson

As author of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin’s successor as Ambassador to France, Governor of Virginia, Secretary of State and Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson is the most qualified man to ever hold the office of President. And he made sure that his good friends James Madison and James Monroe had impressive resumes when it was their turn to seek the office.

Related Articles…

The Least Qualified Men to Ever Become President

How Experienced Are Potential Presidents?

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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  1. anarchitek says:

    The author of this whitewash doesn’t know MUCH about either the Presidents OR history! John Tyler was a dweeb, as was Martin van Buren, a stout farmer from upstate New York. Ronnie RayGun was an average student, and a virulent racist demagogue. He never adjusted to the modern age. Bush1 was also mediocre in terms of intelligence, and in terms of his Presidency. Wm H Taft NEVER wanted to be President, and his term proved how poorly he fit the job description. He made a much better Supreme Court justice–the ONLY President to serve in BOTH! Teddy Roosevelt was a shameless self-promoter, but his heart was in the right place. His actions as President set the tone for much of what would become our standard of living, including trust-busting, Pure Food and Drug Act, Meat-Inspection Act, and, other legislation designed to standardize and ensure Consumer safety. His completion of the Panama Canal stands as one of the engineering pinnacles of the pre-mechanized century.

    Nixon was a demagogue of the worst sort, an opportunist without morals or conscience, and the ONLY man in America, alive at the time, who “could NOT remember” EXACTLY where he was on November 22, 1963! First he DENIED being in Dallas at all, that day, THEN he came up with one lame, and false, alibi after another! George Bush1 was in Dallas that day, but you cannot find mention of it, in his “memoirs”!

    As for your “Top Ten”, James Buchanan does NOT belong anywhere NEAR it. He was a MEDIOCRE President at best, one who turned a BLIND EYE to the ABUSES occurring in slave states, and was ONLY selected as a “compromise” candidate, so as to “offend” the fewest number! Likewise, John Q Adams does NOT belong on the Top Ten, but perhaps in the SECOND tier. George Washington belongs at the TOP, because he SET the tone, for ALL Presidents to follow. He REFUSED to be called by ANY grandiose titles, and insisted on Mr President, the title we STILL use, today!

    Thomas Jefferson, once my unabashed idol, was a dilettante. Instead of manumitting his slaves, on his death, he SOLD a large number, to pay off DEBTS he had run up, BECAUSE he was such a dilettante, and could NOT manage money! He ALSO engineered the CALUMNY and abuse John Adams was subjected to, in the election of 1800, because HE did NOT want to “wait” four more years! How that would have affected the course of the United States is difficult to say–Napoleon STILL would have NEEDED the money, since he could not control himself, so it’s possible we would CELEBRATE Adams, as purchaser of the Louisiana Territory. He probably would NOT have sent out Lewis and Clark, so the Corps of Discovery, if there were one, would have elevated some other explorers to fame. No telling.

    James Polk does not belong in the Top Ten, either, he was a slave owner his entire life, and refused to recognize the cancer that was eating at the country! He is generally acknowledged as a second-tier President by most historians, and on almost all l”Best of” lists. Andrew Johnson was a DRUNKARD, and the LEAST EFFECTIVE President, except for Wm Henry Harrison, who lay on his sickbed his entire Presidency, until he died! Johnson was selected by Lincoln, in hopes of reuniting the country, but Stanton and the “war” republiKKKan’ts were uninterested in Johnson’s opinions, and hamstrung the man. He deserved better than he got, but he also should have done better. It’s hard to respect a man with no self-respect!

    Your selection of Wm Henry Harrison, at #11, is mindboggling! It does NOT matter WHAT a man accomplishes BEFORE he becomes President, when assessing his importance, vis a vis the office! Harrison was the INSTRUMENT of his own doom, REFUSING to wear a hat or an overcoat, on a miserably cold and rainy inauguration day, and INSISTED on delivering the LONGEST inaugural address ever–more than TWO HOURS long (this after Daniel Webster had EDITED it, for length!). He only lived 32 days after taking the oath of office, and no matter his heroism, or his record as Governor, he was WORSE than “ineffectual”. He’s a THIRD-TIER President, at best, and only THEN, because of the CROWDING at the BOTTOM of the list.

    As for the BOTTOM of the barrel, here is my take on our WORST Presidents, reading from top to bottom, covering the WORST six Presidents:

    #39 – Herbie Hoover He sat on his hands, ensuring the Great Depression would be even worse than it could have been, had he acted, in almost ANY way, for the 3 1/2 yrs remaining on his term!

    #40 – US Grant Appointed a cadre of corrupt former military associates, who were mostly responsible for the WORST depredations of the “Indian Wars”, including much of the genocide. It wouldn’t be until WG Harding, forty-some years later, that a President would approach, and surpass, the level of CORRUPTION and incompetence, in an administration!

    #41 – Tricky Dick Nixon Watergate, the CREEP, the “fund-raising” scandals (outright extortion, including the “egg” scandal), and the ONLY man in America who “couldn’t remember” WHERE he was on 11/22/63! And, for the DEATHS of the ADDITIONAL 22,000 young American soldiers who DIED, because HE interfered with the Paris Peace Talks in 1968, and ENSURED that the VietNam War WOULD go on, for another FIVE years!

    #42 – Warren G Harding The “Tea Pot Dome Scandal”, bootlegging out the backdoor of the White House, and the LAST man to be selected in a “smoke-filled back room” (at the 1920 Republican Convention)! His death, on a trip out west, was suspicious, and the autopsy and investigation even more so!

    #43 – Ronnie RayGun The MOST criminal convictions EVER, in one administration, the Beirut bombing of the Marine Barracks (can we say “Benghazi”?), converting Social Security from a TRUST Fund, to a GENERAL Fund account in order to REDUCE the apparent numbers of his deficits, Iran-Contra, LYING to Congress, DOUBLING, then TRIPLING the National Debt (his 110% INCREASE remains the HIGHEST percentage INCREASE to date, followed by his 2nd Place entry, at 50%–BOTH of these in 1980s dollars, when our MONEY was WORTH a hell of a LOT more than it is, today, mostly thanks to Ronnie RayGun!). Oh, and during the 1980 campaign, Ronnie called Jimmy Carter’s last deficit (of $47 Billion, an “obscene” number! He NEVER got CLOSE to a deficit as low as that, EVEN after STEALING the Social Security Trust Fund, AND Moynihan’s INCREASE in the SS tax rate, that brought in BILLIONS of additional dollars!

    #44 – Junior Bush Where does one start, with a President as LAZY, INEPT, and UNQUALIFIED as Bush2, or “Junior”? OK, let’s start at the beginning: STEALING the election! Allowing his BROTHER to HELP him steal the election. IGNORING reports of bin Lauden’s PLAN to ATTACK an American city in a TERROR attack, that probably would involve ramming airplanes into a building! Sitting on his hands, WHEN that happened, skulking around the country as if HE were the target. BLOWING the SURPLUS raised by Clinton’s careful management of the purse strings! He ran the National Debt through the ceiling, and into the stratosphere. He started TWO pointless wars, one against a country that was NOT represented among the terrorists on ANY of the planes! He declared the war was “over” and the battle “won”, when it was a long, long way from either. He wore an aviator’s flight suit, DESPITE deserting from his unit during wartime! He ALLOWED the “Swift Boat” a**holes, to trash a REAL vet, Kerry; earlier, he had allowed Karl Rove to trash McCain! He GAVE Wall Street THREE-QUARTERS of a TRILLION dollars, without getting ANY guarantees, OR regulations, to ensure the same kind of thing wouldn’t happen again, BUT, his AG did NOT CHARGE ANY of the criminals who CAUSED the 2008 Crash with ANY criminal charges! He ran up a $1 Trillion deficit in ONE year–the all time RECORD, still standing! And, he took MORE vacation days than ANY other President! IF you want to talk about a President’s PRE-election qualifications, as you have several times, Junior’s bear SPECIAL consideration, then! A felony DUI conviction, DRUG arrests, INSIDER trading (selling his shares in Harken Energy TWO MONTHS before the company “announced” WORSE losses than anticipated), one FAILED business after another, usually leaving his partners, or investors, holding the bag, and, somehow borrowing SIX HUNDRED THOUSAND dollars, to “buy” the Texas Rangers Baseball Club–with NO assets, NO security, NO visible means of support, and NO co-signer or other “guarantee” for the bank (violating a half-dozen banking regulations!), and the outright THEFT of land necessary for the stadium in Arlington, along with a score of other SHADY, if not criminal, actions, along the way. Judging a President’s term in office requires MORE than a casual acquaintance with the facts, and a total disregarding of one’s own political beliefs. You don’t pass on either score.

    • Thomas Mets says:

      I think you misunderstood what I was rating. I wasn’t trying to rank the Presidents by their effectiveness in office, but by their qualifications on paper. It’s not a list of the best Presidents. It is explicitly a list of what the men accomplished before they became President, since I was curious about the connection between that and how well they did when they got into the White House. You had Presidents who weren’t qualified on paper and sucked in the office (Franklin Pierce), Presidents who weren’t qualified on paper and were incredible in the office (Abraham Lincoln), Presidents who were qualified on paper and did a terrible job (Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan) as well as Presidents who were qualified on paper and did a great job (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson.)

  2. DENISE M. AH YOUNG says:

    It saddens me that charactor morals and selflessness are not a part of the highess office in the land qualifications. The father of my faith Abram was willing to take the life of his son to serve his God. The office demands much more tha words.To those who are given much is given. I believe i must be responsible to seek and evaluate anyone who desires the office of the President
    I did not vote for our current president s first term because i did not know him
    I don’t care about how good a speaker you are or if you can connect to people. I care who your parent s are and the values instlled. I want to understand your intent in the decisions you make and how you care for the weak. I care about how you handle mistakes and your skill in diplomatic communication. I want someone who talks less and listens more. I want to hear how your peers feel about you. I want someone who includes me in the problems and the solutions as we the people. I want someone who will stand with me in the hard times and weep with me in the lost
    I want a quiet warrior not a bully. Someone who understands walking away is not a sign of weakness but courage. I pray the the wisdom inbedded within each american will show in Nov. I pray no matter the outcome we stand. No matter the outcome we go forward teaching our children how hard we work and together we will overcome. Blessings

  3. says:

    Anarchitek is wrong on so many counts, that I don’t have the time or patience to set him straight, but I have to say I laughed out loud when I read his statement about George Bush blowing the surplus made ” by Clinton’s careful management of the purse strings”. How funny! There would not have been a balanced budget during that administration if it had not been for Newt Gingrich and his Republican colleagues in Congress. Yes, Bill was President, but had NOTHING to do with that, although Bill had a lot to do with sending our jobs overseas, however. WOW! How twisted.

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