The Catholic University of America

Aug. 23, 2012

Backgrounds of U.S. Presidents: How do Obama and Romney Stack Up?


Phillip Henderson

Phillip Henderson, associate professor of politics at The Catholic University of America, researches and teaches on the U.S. presidency. In anticipation of the Republican (Aug. 27 to 30) and Democratic (Sept. 3 to 6) national conventions and the November elections, he has written the essay below that compares the backgrounds of nominees Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in a historical context.

Henderson has served as chairman of the Department of Politics since 2007 and has been a member of the faculty since 1991. He teaches undergraduate courses on U.S. Political Leadership (from 1789 to 1912 and 1912 to Present) and graduate courses on the History of the Presidency and Presidential Decision-Making in National Security.

If President Barack Obama is reelected, he will continue the tradition of 21 other presidents who came from humble origins, though his background is hardly as austere as that of Andrew Jackson or of Abraham Lincoln, who grew up in a windowless one-room log cabin and had a total of only one year of formal education in his life.

Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan clearly did not have any advantages early in life as their fathers all had various degrees of inauspicious occupations. Bill Clinton’s father died in a car accident before his son was born, and his stepfather was said to have been abusive toward his mother. Obama’s father abandoned Barack when he was just 2 years old to work on a Ph.D. at Harvard University. Truman’s father was a farmer, Nixon’s father was a streetcar conductor, farmhand, and oil roustabout, and Reagan’s father was a shoe salesman who could not afford to own a home during Ronald Reagan’s youth.

If, on the other hand, Republican challenger Mitt Romney is elected as the 45th president, he will join 22 predecessors who came from upper-middle class, professional, or affluent backgrounds — including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush (41), and George W. Bush (43). Romney’s father, George Romney, without a college degree, became the CEO of American Motors, and later governor of Michigan, and a member of Richard Nixon’s Cabinet.

Thanks to his maternal grandparents, Obama’s early years in Hawaii, where he was born in 1961, were relatively comfortable, in spite of the fact that his father (who was from Kenya) abandoned him. When Obama’s mother remarried in 1966, Barack spent four years of his youth (ages 6 to 10) in Indonesia, where his mother worked at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. He lived in a neighborhood that had once been populated by elite Dutch colonists. When the family moved back to Hawaii, Obama attended the Punahou School, an elite private prep academy, not unlike the Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where Mitt Romney attended school beginning in seventh grade. The young Romney interned in the governor’s office when his father served for six years as governor of Michigan. He also attended the Republican Convention of 1964 at the age of 17 and witnessed his father’s efforts to set a more moderate tone in the positions of Barry Goldwater and the Republican Party on civil rights issues and other matters.

In terms of educational background, both Obama and Romney were high achievers. Both hold law degrees from Harvard Law School. Obama graduated Magna Cum Laude from the law school. Romney graduated Cum Laude in law, but he also simultaneously finished the Harvard Business School’s M.B.A. program in the top 5 percent of graduates. He completed a rigorous joint J.D./M.B.A. program in just four years.

Obama is the eighth president in American history to hold a Harvard degree, and Romney would be the ninth. Indeed, Romney holds two of his three degrees from Harvard and would be only the second president in American history to hold an M.B.A. Obama also holds two Ivy League degrees, with a B.A. from Columbia to accompany his J.D. from Harvard. The last president who did not hold a college degree was Harry S. Truman.

Obama is the 26th president out of 44 (Grover Cleveland is counted twice because of non-consecutive terms) to hold a law degree. If elected, Romney would be the 27th (which would raise the percentage of American presidents holding law degrees to just over 61 percent). Interestingly, Obama and Romney are in the minority among modern presidential candidates in that Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Reagan, Bush the elder, and Bush the younger never attended law school. Gerald Ford was a Yale Law School graduate and Lyndon Johnson attended Georgetown Law School briefly, but did not graduate. Obama, and candidate Romney, join Clinton among the ranks of the minority of post-World War II presidential candidates who have not had military or National Guard service. Reagan served in the Army Reserve prior to World War II and then transferred to an Air Force reserve film unit during the war. Truman had combat service as an artillery officer in World War I. Eisenhower was supreme commander of all the Allied forces during World War II. Kennedy, Ford, and the elder Bush were decorated combat veterans.

President Obama is the sixth U.S. president since 1900 to have served in the U.S. Senate. Prior to Obama, Kennedy was the last president to go directly from the Senate to the White House, though Truman and Johnson both served in the Senate prior to the vice presidency.

If elected, Romney would be the 10th president since 1900 to have served as a state governor. Franklin Roosevelt, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush are among those who served as governors before their election to the presidency.

All but five American presidents out of 44 held elective office before serving as president. Obama and Romney are no exception.

Obama was first elected to office at age 36. At the age of 47, Romney was defeated in his election challenge for the U.S. Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy in 1994, but was successfully elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002 at the age of 55. In this respect, Romney would be a latecomer to elective office, joining Reagan, who, coincidentally, was elected governor of California at age 55.

Regardless of family affluence, educational background, or experience, attaining the office of president requires an element of luck, or, at least, good timing. A background of affluence and opportunity is not essential as demonstrated by a number of 19th- and 20th- century presidents. Jackson, James K. Polk, Lincoln, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama are just some of the presidents who have been able to offset humble origins with extraordinary effort and personal skill to reach the highest office in the land. Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson were elevated to the presidency after assassination. Gerald Ford, who was appointed to the vice presidency under the 25th Amendment after the resignation of Spiro Agnew, became president as the result of Richard Nixon’s resignation in the midst of the Watergate impeachment hearings. And Harry Truman, a relatively unknown vice president from Missouri, became president upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt.


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