The nation’s governors assemble in the White House today to hear a policy speech from President Obama. It will be serious and potentially boring stuff, and as the statehouse chiefs sit in the impressive surroundings, perhaps the discussion of Department of Homeland Security funding will fade away and they’ll begin day-dreaming. What if it were them up there at the podium as president? Why not – aren’t statehouses the training ground for the nation’s chief executives?
Obama himself mentioned this in brief remarks at a dinner on Sunday.
“It’s wonderful to see you all here tonight,” he said to the assembled members of the National Governors Association. “Harry Truman once called the presidency an ‘enlarged governorship.’ Of course, a few of you are hoping that he was right.”
He got some laughs with that. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin was in the room – he’s a likely 2016 Republican candidate. On Sunday he even posted a selfie with his son Alex that was taken in a White House corridor. Perhaps “Hail to the Chief” was playing in his head at that moment.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey was there, too. He’s a Walker rival and recently completed a term as head of the Republican Governors Association. He’s traveled the nation raising money for his fellow GOP state leaders. He probably looked at Governor Walker and grumbled to himself that somebody needs to wait their turn.
As for Democrats, Martin O’Malley wasn’t there, because his tenure as governor of Maryland recently expired. But he seems to be preparing to run against Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries, which will perhaps be a thankless task. Other former governors who are all but certain to run include Jeb Bush, who ran Florida a while back, and Mike Huckabee, ditto in Arkansas.
So it’s certainly possible that an ex-governor will indeed occupy the White House in 2016. And if that’s the case, it will bolster the occupation’s record. It is indeed the most common of pre-presidential careers, barely.
Seventeen people who served at one point as a governor have become president, according to the Rutgers Center on the American Governor. That’s 39 percent of the total number of presidents. (Which is 44, if you didn’t know.)
Thomas Jefferson was the first. He was governor of Virginia. Besides Jefferson, Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler served as Virginia governors.
But the Old Dominion, despite its many Founding Fathers, is not the state with the most governors. That’s New York, which had four: Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt.
And governors have been political gold in recent decades, presidency-wise. Four of the last six sat in statehouses. That would be Jimmy Carter (Georgia), Ronald Reagan (California), Bill Clinton (Arkansas), and George W. Bush (Texas).
But governors do have competition. US senators are nipping at their wing-tipped heels. Sixteen senators have served as president, including former Sen. Barack Obama, according to the Senate Historical Office.
If Mrs. Clinton wins the presidency, that number will rise to 17, given that she was a senator from New York. So if it’s Clinton versus Jeb Bush in the general election, the contest won’t just be Democrat versus Republican. It will be Senate versus statehouse for presidential stepping-stone bragging rights.
[Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the number of New York governors who went on to become president.]