Does a President's Background Even Matter?

Gail Collins poses a question today to her readers: should a president have a college degree? That immediate question is somewhat interesting (I would say yes, if only because entry-level secretaries in offices are required to have a bachelor's degree these days), but there are others with more intellectual excitement.

Two deeper questions are: to what extent do credentials and qualifications help a president in decision-making and how closely should analysts of politics pay attention to the backgrounds of their subjects?

I was reading my undergraduate advisor's critique of Graham Allison's Essence of Decision in International Security [1] yesterday, and he repeatedly references the value of historical biography in analyzing foreign policy decisions. In contrast with Allison, who argues that the process of policymaking is the fundamental framework for understanding decisions, this paper argued that we should instead not lose sight of the people within the room and their similar backgrounds.

Perhaps no quote sums up the piece better than this one from the paper's final paragraph: "Resisting the narrowness of Essence, scholars should think deeply and critically about the underlying values framework of major policy, and perhaps even about the class background or social origins of major policymakers." Such a point is heretical to international relations scholars, who believe that countries are black boxes. It's one of the many reasons I have a sociological bent to my research.

Academics too often are willing to cede that historical contingency for theories that offer more "science" at the expense of real explanatory power. The background of the president doesn't just matter -- it matters a lot! The fact that Obama was trained as a lawyer shows through in much of his decision-making, and is in contrast to Romney's mode of operation while governor of Massachusetts. It's not obvious which style is better, and we should be careful of making judgments too swiftly. But there is certainly a sense that the style of decision-making, and thus the decision-maker himself, must have an influence on the final outcome.

And yet, there remains this huge gulf between political journalists and political analysts, the former predisposed to issues of identity and connections to voters, while the latter focus more macroscopically where changes to the economy look beyond the power of any single individual. The focus on process over politics also allows us to presumably remove the politics from our research, but at the expense of explanatory power.

We don't need more litmus tests in presidential politics, like whether a candidate has gotten a college degree. But we do need to fully understand who someone is so we can grasp what kind of decision-maker they would be. In the case of Scott Walker (who didn't graduate from college), we need to get a much better sense of his thinking beyond simply public union politics. Only then can we understand how he will interact with Washington's myriad political processes and shape government.

[1] Bernstein, Barton J. “Understanding Decisionmaking, U.S. Foreign Policy, and the Cuban Missile Crisis: a Review Essay.” International Security 25, no. 1 (July 2000): 134–64. doi:10.1162/016228800560417.

Photo by Nazareth College used under a Creative Commons license.


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