So you want to be President.
Every American kid wants to be President someday, or so this Brit is told. Many grow out of that fantasy, but some do hold that wish. Even fewer actually get close to it.
What is the best way to the presidency? Follow my guide, based on the historical route presidents have taken:
Go to an Ivy League college
Whilst MIT and Stanford are among many excellent colleges in America, it seems that the Ivy League is the best route into the White House. Fifteen US Presidents have attended an Ivy League, clocking in at 33%. Harvard is the most popular choice, helped by its age.
The Ivy League is a huge help for several reasons. Firstly, it’s usually an indicator of wealth and prestige, though that’s a more historical perspective. Secondly, it’s about connections. You will meet people who will have similarly powerful jobs in the future. Some already have their foot in the door. Many people in the judicial and legislative are Ivy League graduates- eight of the nine Supreme Court Justices attended one. The Biden-Harris administration was the first Democratic ticket since 1984 not to have an Ivy League graduate on it. The last ticket before this one to win without an Ivy League grad was the 1976 Carter-Mondale team.
(Joe Biden attended Delaware and Syracuse, Kamala Harris attended Howard and California, Hastings, Jimmy Carter attended the Naval Academy, and Walter Mondale attended Macalester and Minnesota).
Richard Nixon was offered the chance to study at Harvard but was unable to take it up.
The Ivy League colleges represented by presidents are: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, UPenn and Princeton. If you want to be President, you better bone up on your studies.
Come from Ohio, Virginia or New York
These three states make up nearly half of all presidential birthplaces. Twenty presidents were born in one of these three, which is 44% of the total.
Considering that these were among the largest states in early US history, it’s understandable that they had a head start. Virginia has lost its spark, but New York saw the birth of Donald Trump as its most recent representative. Barack Obama bucked the trend somewhat, as he was born outside the contiguous 48 states.
Fewer than half of US states have seen a President born in its borders. The furthest west any President has been born is California, which is the same for any Vice President.
Historically, your chances are best in the east and the midwestern United States. Best of luck if you’re from Oregon or Alaska.
Practice or study law
A whopping 62% (twenty-eight) presidents have practiced or studied law. That is, in case you guessed it, a fair amount. It’s a popular choice for anyone entering government service and a requirement for being on the Supreme Court. Law is often paired with politics and it is essentially interpreting what politicians have decided. It’s about arguing your case and presenting yourself.
Three-quarters of the 2020 main ticketmates studied law. Harris, Biden and Mike Pence all have JDs, with Donald Trump being the only exception.
There has been NO presidential election in which a major party ticket member did not study or practice law. When it comes to 2024, it will likely be the same. Both Biden and Harris studied law. Whilst Donald Trump and Nikki Haley did not study law, Ron DeSantis did.
Be in Congress
Twenty-six presidents have been Representatives, Senators, or both. That’s 56%.
There are certain advantages to being in Congress. The first is that it allows a candidate to show a level of experience as well as an understanding of laws. Another is that the passing or support of certain legislation can prove ideological credentials. A candidate can also make close friends and professional relationships, very handy for when they have to deal with Congress.
The following presidents were in both Houses of Congress: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, JFK, LBJ, and Richard Nixon.
The President with the longest Representative service was Gerald Ford at twenty-four years. The President with the longest Senate service was Joe Biden with thirty- six years.
Be a Governor
Seventeen Presidents have been Governors of a state, equating to 38%. The state with the most Governors-to-Presidents is New York with four, followed by Virginia with three and Ohio/Tennessee with two.
There have also been three presidents who have been governors of US or foreign territories. They are Andrew Jackson (Florida Territory), William Henry Harrison (Indiana Territory, Louisiana District and Northwest Territory), and William H. Taft (Cuba and the Philippines). Andrew Johnson was also Military Governor of Tennessee during the Civil War.
Governors of larger states like Texas, California, New York and Florida tend to be more well-known. This is best evidenced by Jimmy Carter, Governor of Georgia, who had a 2% name recognition when he ran for office. That’s not to say that lesser-known governors don’t have a chance though, considering Carter did end up winning the nomination and the president.
Be a cabinet member
Eight presidents have been Cabinet members, which is 20% of the total. This does not include presidents who were Vice President, as they will be discussed further down.
Six of the eight were Secretary of State. It’s usually seen as the most plum Cabinet position and the holder is fourth in the presidential line of succession, higher than any other position in the Cabinet. James Madison and John Quincy Adams were in their position for the entirety of their President’s terms. Hebert Hoover also did a full eight terms, but it was split between the Harding and Coolidge administration. James Monroe served in two roles- State and War.
State is also an ideal position as it gives one foreign policy experience.
Serve in the military
A whopping thirty-one presidents have served in the military, representing 69% of US leaders. There have been major wars in which a large number of men would have served in- the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War 2. Interestingly, despite Vietnam’s strong grip on history and culture, no presidents have served there.
George Washington is the highest ranked of them all. He is General of the Armies and permanently senior to ALL US military personnel, past, present and future. Both Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower held the rank of General of the Army.
The ranks held and how many held them:
- General of the Armies (One)
- General of the Army (Two)
- Major General (Five)
- Brigadier General (Four)
- Colonel (Five)
- Commander (Two)
- Major (Two)
- Lieutenant Commander (One)
- Captain (Four)
- Lieutenant (Three)
- First Lieutenant (One)
- Private (One)
There is some controversy regarding Bill Clinton, George Bush, Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s participation. Whilst Bush definitely did have combat training and was a First Lieutenant in the Air National Guard, there were questions about whether he technically fulfilled his military service contract.
Clinton and Trump were both born in 1946, whilst Biden was born in 1942. They were thus of military age during Vietnam. Trump received four student deferments before being deemed possibly eligible upon graduation. He received one more deferment before he was declared medically unfit for service. Trump said he was ineligible due to bone spurs.
Clinton received several deferments during his undergraduate years. At Oxford, Clinton protested against the war. Upon returning to America for law school, he attempted to join the Naval Reserve, National Guard and Air Force officer training in order to avoid the draft. These failed. Clinton then made a successful application to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps but pulled out. He was eventually put in the draft but was never conscripted. Clinton would later say that he decided against joining the ROTC as he believed it was wrong to use it as an excuse to avoid a war, even if he opposed said war.
Biden also received several student deferments but was given notice before he went to law school, similar to Clinton. He received a conditional medical exemption due to his childhood asthma. This meant that he’d only be called up in an emergency. Trump also initially received this exemption.
Grover Cleveland avoided the Civil War by paying a substitute $150. Theodore Roosevelt Sr did the same, something that upset his war proud President of a son.
Ronald Reagan joined the reserves a few years before. WW2, but was prevented from doing active duty due to poor eyesight. He instead made training films and used his entertainment role to work towards the effort.
The branches of service of military Presidents:
- US Army (Five)
- State Militia (Nine)
- Union Army (Six)
- Army Reserve (Three)
- Naval Reserve (Five)
- Navy (One)
- Air National Guard (One)
Be Vice President
Fifteen men were Vice President before they were President, 33% of the total. Of those, eight got the job when their predecessor’s heartbeat stopped. Another got it after their predecessor died. Of the eight, only four would win an election in their own right.
The other six were John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, and Joe Biden. Both Nixon and Biden would not ascend their presidency straight after vice presidency.
Being VP is often seen as a thankless job, but there’s usually a good national profile that comes with it. It also makes one seem experienced.
There haven’t been any presidents who are only children. There have been a few First Ladies who have been (Eliza Johnson, Grace Coolidge, Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush), but no presidents. Some, like Clinton and FDR had only a half-sibling, but none were only children.
Meet the requirements
If you’ve gotten this far, then I’m sorry to burst your bubble. There are three requirements in the Constitution for eligibility, which are as follows:
- Be a natural-born citizen of the United States
- Be at least 35 years old
- Be a resident of the United States for at least 14 years
The natural-born citizenship clause has been the most contentious. Barry Goldwater was born in Arizona a few years before it became a state. George Romney was born in Mexico. John McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Ted Cruz was born in Canada. It was generally accepted that it was fair for Goldwater as Arizona would eventually become a state and for McCain as the PCT was under American control at the time. Both Romney and Cruz had a parent or parents with American citizenship.
If somebody does not meet those requirements then they are unable to be part of the presidential succession. Those who were excluded include Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright and Elaine Chao.
I strongly doubt any US Governors or members of Congress are reading (if that’s not the case, hi), but what criteria do or will you hit? Perhaps one of you will become President someday.