Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 March 2007

Barack Obama's "Inexperience"


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
PresidentState LegislatureGovernorshipU.S. HouseU.S. SenateAge at InaugurationInaugural Year
Abraham Lincoln8020511861
John F. Kennedy0068431961
Jimmy Carter4600521977
Ronald Reagan0800701981
George W. Bush0600542001
Barack Obama*8004*47*2009*
Hillary Rodham Clinton*0008*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.

Disclaimer of Association with “Sheriff”

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.

I disclaim any association with “Sheriff” or the Website on which his posts appear. I do not approve of or endorse “Sheriff’s” links to this blog, his views, or any view expressed on that Website. I have read only enough material on that site to judge its quality, which is the lowest of any blog that I have read.

I will not identify the site because I have no wish to increase its traffic. People referred from that site will know who they are.

I ask anyone who has information about “Sheriff” or his site to provide it anonymously in a comment to this post. I will post the comment only if so requested and if it has general interest. (I moderate all comments before posting them.)

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  • At Thursday, August 23, 2007 at 3:30:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This is the best comparison i've read since the word "experience" has been thrown around.

    I totally agree with every bit of this article.

  • At Friday, August 24, 2007 at 8:49:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This article is phenomenal! This is by far one of the clearest disproofs of the "lack of experience" propaganda being thrown around about Obama. Well researched, and very true!!

    I found a reference to this article in the comments section of an MSNBC article about Obama's appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

  • At Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 3:42:00 PM EST, Blogger cate508 said…

    Well said. I received this link from a fellow group member on barackobama.com, and plan to forward it to my other groups.

    Excellent and thank you!!

  • At Friday, March 14, 2008 at 6:59:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    of course, in the immortal words of kinky friedman (if only he was gov to texas now!):

    politics is the only vocation where more experience make you worse...

    great post!

  • At Wednesday, March 19, 2008 at 5:58:00 PM EDT, Blogger Julia said…

    Thanks so much for this post, great comparison. i am doing a speech on Obama and i would like to use your table. How can i sight this in my sources? Thanks

  • At Wednesday, March 19, 2008 at 8:59:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Julia,

    Please feel free to use the table, but please check any copy (other than a machine copy) for accuracy.

    You can cite this post by its URL, as follows:


    Similarly, you can cite the table by its URL, as follows:


    Since complex URLs are hard to get across in a speech, you may prefer to cite this blog as "Diatribes [plural] of Jay" and give the title of the post. The first two results of a Google search for the blog title are links to this blog, and two of the next three search results contain links to this blog.

    Once in the blog, a reader can find any post by clicking on the title "Diatribes of Jay" at the top (to access the home page) and looking at the index in the right-hand sidebar of the home page.


  • At Wednesday, September 3, 2008 at 10:06:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Carter was a BUST,as well as Bush and Hillary has a LONG history of political activism before even getting to Washington.
    Your article is clearly cherry picking and selective.

  • At Saturday, September 6, 2008 at 12:20:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Anonymous (above),

    Sometimes a comment contains the seeds of its own refutation. Yours is one of those.

    “Political activism” is neither political leadership nor political experience—if by “experience” you mean making decisions that have real consequences for which you bear personal and political responsibility. Ralph Nader is my generation’s paradigmatic political activist, but he’s not a political leader. He accomplished much when he kept his sights on a single issue: unreasonably dangerous cars and consumer products. When he tried to become a political leader, he lost his perspective, let his ego consume him, and ultimately helped give us Dubya.

    Our nation’s history also has seen many far more admirable political activists. Among them were the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Samuel Gompers. Each of these great souls made our country and our world a much better place, often at enormous personal risk and sacrifice. I don’t think anyone could credibly compare Hillary’s accomplishments with theirs.

    Part of the secret of these great activists was humility. No one—least of all they themselves—would have said they were qualified to be president, even at the height of their activist success. They succeeded in achieving important goals by devoting themselves entirely to a single cause and understanding their own limitations with accuracy and humility. “Humility” is a word that does not belong in the same sentence with either Hillary or her husband.

    As for cherry-picking, I did no such thing. I limited my table and my analysis impartially to years in public office at the state or federal level, and I said so. I treated Hillary just the same as I did Carter and Reagan. I ignored her years before she became New York’s junior senator (her first-ever political office!), just as I ignored Carter’s considerable service on country and local boards and commissions and Reagan’s service as president of the Screen Actors Guild, which gave him his first taste of public service.

    The more I think about it, the more I believe that decision was analytically correct. Experience with activism or local political office (or as first lady) may be personally enriching and may help build political skill. But that sort of experience involves nothing like the same sort of responsibility for leadership and consequential decisions, plus the need to respond credibly to a wide range of constituencies, as does serving in state or national political office.

    Serving in a big, industrial state like California (Reagan), Georgia (Carter), Texas (Dubya), or Illinois (Obama) involves entirely different challenges and skills than advocating for a cause like health care or women’s rights without actual leadership or personal responsibility for results.


  • At Sunday, October 5, 2008 at 9:58:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Every politician generally has had experience doing something related to politics, even when not holding public office. According to this chart, Rudy Giuliani (mayor for 8 years) has no relevant experience. However many consider Giuliani to have extensive relevant experience based on his history of fighting deep-seeded corruption and selflessly working for the good of the people.
    Holding public office simply demonstrates an ability to win an election, which has been Obama's greatest strength. However Obama has generally avoided controversial issues and has never campaigned based on his own accomplishments, but rather by exposing his opponent's perceived weaknesses.
    Obama's perceived inexperience is not based on his years in public office, but rather due to his lack of accomplishments. While he has shown an ability to attract voters, he is seen within the senate as a follower rather than a leader and is potentially a puppet for unelectable democrats. Combined with his questionable personal associations and controversies regarding a few personal gains allegedly due his political position, some people would like to see some examples of moral strength and true leadership.

  • At Sunday, October 12, 2008 at 9:10:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Anonymous,

    You seem to have missed the point of this post.

    What matters is not experience, but judgment, perspective and character. Jack Kennedy avoided nuclear Armageddon because he had good judgment. Historians consider Lyndon Johnson one of the two greatest Senate majority leaders in our history; but he got us involved in a twelve-year, unnecessary losing war in Vietnam. With far less experience, Dubya did much the same in Iraq.

    There are solid reasons to expect that experienced Washington pols will do a terrible job of managing conflicts with foreign cultures. The more foreign the culture, the worse they will do. Dubya, Dick Cheney are Donald Rumsfeld are only the most recent proofs of this point.

    As for “moral strength and true leadership,” how about predicting, spot on, exactly what would happen if we invaded Iraq, when everyone else was beating the drums for war? How about speaking to the barons of Detroit about the need for smaller cars and greater fuel economy? How about helping reform the Senate’s ethics rules during his very first term in the Senate—an amazing accomplishment in light of the Senate’s rules of seniority? The facts are that Barack Obama has shown better judgment and stronger leadership than any candidate in the Democratic party.

    John McCain has shown leadership, but it’s been mostly in the wrong direction, especially on economic issues. If you like what Republican ideology has done to our country and our economy, then he’s your man.


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  • At Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 12:30:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Term Papers,

    Thanks for your encouragement.

    As you use my blog, beware of plagiarism. When you quote from or paraphrase the ideas in this blog, cite it as Anonymous, "Diatribes of Jay," with the URL. Although this blog is still anonymous, I'll appreciate the citation, just like any other author.

    More important, think for yourself. Don’t support the ideas expressed here just because they’re here, or because you like my general philosophy or writing style. Think everything through for yourself. Play “Devil’s advocate,” taking opposing views to test the ones you prefer.

    As I said in explaining why this blog is anonymous, my goal as a teacher is to teach students how to think, not what to think. Too many people in our nation don’t really know how to think, which is why we’re in decline.

    I hope you are, or will be, different. Good luck.


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  • At Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 1:41:00 PM EST, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    I’ve suspected as much, since many of my readers appear to be college students. But thanks for the confirmation.

    I’m sure Turnitin and other plagiarism checkers will like to know. They might even increase my readership. After all, it’s not plagiarism if you cite the source and don’t copy too much.

    My policy is to encourage copying to spread the ideas on this Blog. But that’s only a matter of copyright. Students still have to do their own thinking and writing. If they don’t, they’re subject to discipline, including suspension and explusion, in every decent school I know. They also won’t learn much, but I guess that’s a secondary consideration for your customers.



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