Barack Obama's "Inexperience"
IMPATIENT READERS: CLICK HERE FOR THE TABLE. FOR A POINT-BY-POINT COMPARISON OF OBAMA TO MCCAIN, CLICK HERE
As Senator Barack Obama seeks the presidency, some have accused him of “inexperience.” I, too, have commented on his scanty experience in military and foreign affairs.
Compared to the political warhorses running against him, Obama seems young. The media give the impression that he first sprang on the political scene in 2004, when he gave his now-famous keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.
But impressions are not facts. Every once in a while, it's good to take a “reality check.”
Experience in the abstract does not matter. The only eligible national figure who has real and substantial experience in the military, diplomatic corps and Cabinet, as well as demonstrated good judgment, is Colin Powell; and he's not running. What matters is how Obama compares with his fellow candidates and previous presidents.
Obama's chief political rival is Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. By the time of the next presidential election, she will have been a United States Senator for eight years---her only elective office. Obama will have been a United States Senator for four years and an Illinois state senator for eight. His political experience thus compares well with Senator Clinton's, although Sen. Clinton has the edge in national experience. Senator Clinton also has the derivative experience of having lived in the White House during her husband's eight years as president, as well as her leadership of an ineffective health-case task force.
Senators Clinton and Obama share a key weakness: lack of substantial experience in military, diplomatic and foreign affairs. This weakness is important but is shared by all the leading candidates with the exception of John McCain. Both Clinton and Obama have some relevant senatorial experience---Clinton on the Senate Armed Services Committee and Obama on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
These facts show little salient difference in experience between the two candidates. Clinton has the edge in years in national elective office; Obama has the edge in total years in elective office, number of elective offices held and number of elections won. Senator Clinton's experience as first lady has marginal relevance to today's challenges, for today's chief issues---terrorism at home, global warming, energy independence, the tradeoff between security and civil rights, and international competitiveness---were hardly on the radar screen on President Clinton's watch. The failure of Senator Clinton's health-care task force and the widespread ridicule it received qualifies as relevant experience only in a negative sense. Therefore the choice between Senators Clinton and Obama must rest on matters other than their respective resumes.
Now let's look at actual presidents. Following is a table comparing Barack Obama’s experience in higher political office with the experiences of five presidents, including Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush, and the experience of Senator Clinton:
Pre-Presidential Experience of Selected Presidents and Candidates: Total Years in State Legislature or Higher Elected Office Prior to Assuming Presidency
|President||State Legislature||Governorship||U.S. House||U.S. Senate||Age at Inauguration||Inaugural Year|
|John F. Kennedy||0||0||6||8||43||1961|
|George W. Bush||0||6||0||0||54||2001|
|Hillary Rodham Clinton*||0||0||0||8*||61*||2009*|
* If elected president in 2008.
As this table shows, Obama’s “inexperience” is a myth. He is right in the mainstream of all five presidents listed. At twelve years, his experience in elective office would beat all but John Kennedy’s. (The table omits experience in lower, unofficial and nongovernmental offices, such as Carter’s extensive service on county boards and commissions, Reagan’s service as President of the Screen Actors Guild, Obama’s experience in community organizing, and Senator Clinton's experience as first lady.)
Obama is also in the mainstream of the five presidents with regard to age. On assuming office he would be four years older than John Kennedy. He would be right in the middle of the collective inaugural ages of Lincoln, Kennedy, Carter and George W. Bush.
In only one respect is Obama’s experience “light.” Unlike Carter, Reagan, and the younger Bush, Obama has never governed a state. But in this respect he is like Lincoln---our greatest president---and like Kennedy, one of our most inspiring and beloved leaders.
The president’s most important role is not commanding the army or balancing the budget, but sensing the spirit and needs of the times and leading the nation to act accordingly. Washington felt the spirit of a new nation and saw it through its difficult birth pangs. Lincoln saw the moral wrong and economic waste of slavery and abolished it, preserving and enhancing our diverse nation in the process. Teddy Roosevelt saw our rise to power and increased our strength, while preserving economic liberty at home with his “trust-busting.” Franklin Roosevelt preserved economic liberty with a “new deal” for everyone; then he saw the rising menace of totalitarian militarism abroad and met it just in time. Ronald Reagan sensed the error and decay of the worldwide Communist movement and gave it the coup de grace.
When we consider our greatest presidents, we don’t think of their “executive skills.” What we revere is their ability to see farther than the rest of us---to use their charisma and political skill to inspire and nudge us to do the right thing. Our greatest presidents, Lincoln and FDR, goaded and inspired us to do what we had to do despite great inertia and resistance. Lincoln led us to fight our bloodiest war in order to preserve our union, rid ourselves of the scourge of slavery and bring our Jeffersonian ideals to life. Roosevelt led an isolationist nation to meet history's greatest challenge of oppressive military tyranny.
These leaders were great not because they had the technical skills of a modern CEO. None of the current crop of candidates does, without exception. What these leaders had was an extraordinary ability to push us in the right direction although the path was steep.
Despite all the grievous errors of the last six years, we are still the world’s leader and beacon of hope. Any president worthy of the name must be able to relight that beacon and rekindle the hope. The vast upwelling of support for Obama suggests that ordinary people have read his book, The Audacity of Hope, and believe he can do just that. Does cautious and methodical Senator Clinton, who took four years to "triangulate" her position on the War in Iraq, have the same ability to inspire?
What matters most in the next election is intelligence, vision and perspective. The threat of terrorism is real and important, but even it is not our greatest threat. In their times, the threats of Nazi and Imperial Japanese militarism and of Communist expansionism and the Soviet nuclear arsenal were far more serious.
Our greatest threat today is our own physical and moral decline. Our roads, bridges, and industrial infrastructure are crumbling. We are losing ground to international rivals in energy, in scientific, medical and technical research, in industry, and in education. We have already lost the first position in providing universal high-speed access to the very Internet that we created. Our best and brightest minds increasingly seek jobs not as scientists, engineers, builders, doctors, and inventors, but instead as investment bankers, stock brokers and lawyers. There they use their brains and skill to "invent” new forms of financial instruments. They devise intricate ways to deprive their elders of promised, hard-earned pensions without violating the letter of the law.
We can no longer protect our people and major cities from natural disasters, and we are doing virtually nothing to stop the global warming that threatens to increase them. We expect the least privileged among us to fight, for money, wars that the most privileged will not fight for duty, honor, or country. Sometimes it seems as if we have turned our economic engine of capitalism into a juggernaut of heedless, amoral greed. Clearly we have lost our way.
Over all these signs of moral decline lies the pall of deep social divisions. The rich are retreating to gated communities, while the poor fester in inner cities. Many people want to deport and punish the immigrants who prepare their food, take care of their yards and children, and do all the other work too hard and dirty for the native-born to do. And a rising tide of true believers seeks to solve all of these real and pressing problems by taking ancient scriptures literally.
If the polls are right, the Republican Party is now seriously considering nominating for president a man who has held no office higher than mayor. John McCain---a war hero, respected senator, and widely acknowledged moral leader---is losing to a man largely unknown outside of New York City, except for effective action during the year after September 11. These facts show how desperate we are for good leadership.
The people sense all this. They understand that we are in a deep national moral crisis, and not just about Iraq. They want a president who can lead us out.
Against these real needs of our times, small differences in political experience measured by years in office are meaningless. Obama measures up to recent presidents---and one of our greatest---on this count. But what matters is whether he can be the great leader for whom the nation yearns.
The campaign of the coming year will test whether Obama can realize the promise of his book. If he can, his political resume will not and should not matter.
Obama is smart enough to appoint good people to fill the gaps in his own experience, including gaps in military and foreign affairs. He is also realistic enough to follow the advice of experts---not political hacks---where he is the amateur. Those traits alone would have saved us the pain of Iraq.
Obama's experience compares well with that of his chief Democratic rival, exceeds the experience of the current Republican front-runner, and measures up on the scale of history. So now let's talk about his intelligence, vision, charisma and perspective. Let's discuss our dire need for good leadership. Let's see whether Obama is strong enough to pull us all out of the deep hole dug by the one who sits in the big office now.
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On Tuesday evening, November 20, 2007, I became aware of links to this blog (and to this post in particular) from a person whose screen name is “Sheriff.” The links were on a scurrilous Website that appears to be run by white supremacists. Material on it goes far beyond what even a legitimate campaign’s “dirty tricks” squad would publish.
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