Does Barack Obama's inexperience matter - and should it?
Who ya gonna call?
I. Experience Matters In The Presidency
The presidency is an enormous, complex and dangerous job. The president's first and foremost responsibility is as the Commander-in-Chief, with responsibility for reacting, sometimes without time to exhaustively gather and sift the best possible information and explore all the alternatives, and with the need at times to rally the nation to do difficult and painful things. The president is also the head of the vast, sprawling executive branch, the nation's chief law enforcement officer, the head of his or her party, the appointer of life-tenured federal judges and scores of influential bureaucrats, the submitter of budgets and proposer of legislation. No president comes to the job fully prepared for all its demands. But the more of those demands the president comes truly unprepared for, the more difficulty he or she will have in mastering them all at once.
While there are a variety of life experiences that are useful for a president to have, to my mind there are five types of experience that are particularly important:
1. Executive experience: The presidency is fundamentally an executive job: most of the things the president does are carried out by giving orders to other people, and usually through several layers of other people. A successful executive needs to know who to appoint, how to supervise them, how to delegate authority and set priorities. Jimmy Carter, for example, though he had served as a Governor, was famously unable to let go of insignificant details, all the way down to micromanaging the use of the White House tennis courts. The public and private sectors alike are strewn with cautionary examples of the difficulty of mastering these tasks in organizations far less massive and diverse than the Executive Branch of the federal government. A president who has never been an executive of any kind - like all three of this year's remaining presidential contenders (the closest any of them comes is McCain's tenure commanding a squadron in the Navy) - faces a daunting task in learning these skills from scratch.
2. Experience with national security and foreign policy: In some areas of national policy, it's possible - even necessary - for a new president to study up on issues and confront them for the first time. But trouble in foreign affairs comes hard and fast, and the president needs to understand on an instinctual level the array of military and non-military options at his or her disposal in any given situation, as well as the many ways in which a particular decision can affect the situation. Military and defense policy in particular can be bewildering and perilous for a beginner who has never encountered it before, given that so many things the military does are so different from how civilian life works.
3. Political experience: If a lot of the president's job requires managing the Executive Branch, another large component - including the ability to keep the Executive Branch in line - is the ability to marshal and sustain political support, both among Congress and the public, including understanding how to build coalitions and how to deal with the media. Of course, the experience of winning a national election gets any president a leg up in this department, but long experience in politics, especially experience of political leadership and experience in coming back from political setbacks, is important training in this area.
4. Military/combat service: As I said above, understanding defense policy from the top down can be a great challenge, but it undoubtedly helps as well to understand it from the ground up. And since the president's most solemn job is to commit forces to combat, experience in combat is not just a campaign slogan; it is, in fact, an important and useful experience to bear always in mind.
5. Private sector experience: Government exists to serve the people, and what Washington does affects private business and private lives in myriad ways that are unanticipated by policymakers inside the Beltway. Having had the responsibility to live off a private sector paycheck and/or manage a private sector business gives the president irreplaceable insights into the end results of his or her actions.
Now, as important as they are, no one of these experiences is essential; you can cite successful presidents who lacked experience in each of these areas, and campaigns have gone off the rails before by trying to make out one of these as a litmus test. But you'd have a hard time locating someone who was even a credible candidate, let alone a successful president, who was basically lacking in all five; the closest would be the singular exception of Abraham Lincoln, who was truly a unique figure, but even Lincoln had made a living in the private sector as an attorney, storekeeper and railsplitter and had some military command experience as a captain in the Black Hawk War. In each case, he ranks ahead of Obama. And Obama is no Abraham Lincoln.
Let's consider two illustrative examples. You may remember the presidency of George H.W. Bush. GHW Bush may well have been the first presidential candidate since George Washington who could really lay claim to all five types of experience: by 1988, he'd been a two-term Vice President, a presidential candidate, a Congressman, a Senate candidate, chairman of the Republican National Committee at the party's historic low ebb, UN Ambassador, CIA Director, ambassador to China, a combat pilot, and a successful oilman.
Bush is a strong example of the benefits of experience. GHW Bush was not a man of great political gifts, nor did he have what he called "the vision thing." But he knew what he was doing. He held afternoon press conferences so frequently they became non-events, ending the prime time game of Sam Donaldson & co. trying to play gotcha with the president. He ran one of the cleanest Administrations, scandal-wise, in memory. His Administration mopped up the S&L mess, and his Treasury Department handled the workout of Latin American debt with aplomb. In foreign affairs, his long years of experience and contacts around the globe paid off time and again, as he faced down Manuel Noriega in Panama and assembled a massive coalition to roll back Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait; as significant as the things that happened were the things that didn't, as delicate diplomacy helped smooth the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, the reunification of Germany and the flowering of democracy on the ashes of tyranny around the globe.
GHW Bush was not, in the main, a successful president, due among other things to his lack of firm political convictions and poor communications skills. But that's just a way of saying that experience alone isn't everything. It is nonetheless true that his experience was an important asset that he relied upon time and again in office.
Consider a contrast: John F. Kennedy. Kennedy and the wildly unsuccessful Warren G. Harding are the only two sitting Senators elected to the White House, neither of them nearly as long-serving as John McCain, but both longer-serving in the Senate than Obama. Kennedy was not as inexperienced as perhaps you might think - in addition to being a combat veteran, he'd been a Congressman for six years and a Senator for eight. But he was relatively young, much of his Senate tenure had been spent in a hospital bed due to back trouble, and he'd never run anything larger than a PT Boat. And the opening of Kennedy's presidency underlined the hazards of being green. He pulled the air support from the Bay of Pigs invasion, after his predecessor had insisted upon it, leading to a humiliating setback that left Cuba in Communist hands to this day; a more experienced leader would have been secure enough to know that whatever you do, you don't mess with an amphibious invasion plan approved by Dwight Eisenhower. Kennedy subsequently impressed Khruschev, in their first meeting, as weak. While Kennedy in some ways had sound instincts on foreign policy, that 1-2 punch at the outset of his tenure provoked repeated challenges by the Communist bloc - Berlin, the Cuban Missile Crisis that nearly led to nuclear war, Vietnam (some historians speculate that Kennedy felt compelled to take a more hawkish stance towards Vietnam because of the earlier setbacks). As we saw with the Chinese spy-place incident in 2001 and Mogadishu in 1993, foreign troublemakers are always willing to put a new president to the test; Kennedy's inexperience contributed to him failing those early tests, with dangerously escalating results in the years that followed. Obama will be a similar standing invitation, especially taking office while the nation is still prosecuting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and crises in Iran, Syria, North Korea and Venezuela.
Former Jimmy Carter speechwriter James Fallows, writing in 1979, aptly described how Carter's leap from the small-time to the big leagues of national politics left him unprepared for the demands of the job:
If his secure position and effortless supremacy in Plains had made Carter calmer than Nixon or Kennedy, it seemed also to have given him too high an estimation of his own gifts. It would have helped him to have spent a little while in a law firm in Boston, or with a movie company in Los Angeles, or as a broker in New York, to acquire that edge of neurosis and compulsion to get the best ideas out of the people on his staff. That Jimmy Carter would have been a less pleasant person; a different background might have denied him the very traits that are now his greatest strength. But it might also have made new ideas seem crucial to him; it would not have left him satisfied, as the real Jimmy Carter too often is, with what burbles up in the usual bureaucratic fashion and with the people who happen to come to hand. In Plains, he had run the business himself, relied entirely upon himself. He did not need to search constantly for people to push and test him, because his unpushed abilities were good enough.
II. Experience Matters To Voters
Experience doesn't only matter because it tests and teaches potential Presidents how to do the job. It also matters because experience reveals things that the voters need to evaluate in a candidate. A candidate who has faced the kinds of tests the presidency offers - management in crisis, adversity in wartime, sustained political leadership, job creation - can be evaluated more easily by voters than one who has only talked about those tests. This is a point that can't be emphasized enough, and at the end of the day it explains why the private lives, personalities and personal history of some candidates - Obama, Romney, Edwards, Bush in 2000, Hart in 1984 & 1988 - are and should be subjected to more minute scrutiny than better-known quantities like McCain, or Dole in 1996, or Mondale in 1984, or Reagan. We already have a wealth of evidence, from his quarter century in the Navy, quarter century in Congress, two presidential campaigns and innumerable appearances on national television, of how John McCain reacts to crises and setbacks, how he approaches tough political decisions, how he answers hard questions, how firmly he will stand for what he believes in, what things he will compromise on, when he will be a loyal party man and when he will go out of his way to go his own way. You may like what you see in McCain's long record or you may not, but very few people are left with much doubt about what kind of man McCain is or how he would approach tough decisions.
Barack Obama, with little experience to reveal his character, his abilities, and his judgment and fewer accomplishments, is explicitly running on a platform that he has the "Judgment to Lead":
When McCain talks about judgment, we can test the proof in the pudding. But when Obama says it, how do we know that, other than that Obama says so? He points to his decision to oppose the war in Iraq, and indeed to some extent his talk of "judgment" has just been code for that one position, but even on the Iraq War, Obama had the most minimal responsibility: he did little beyond giving a single speech to a local crowd of like-minded constituents, and was by far less influential in the debate than scores of bloggers, let alone members of the federal government. He didn't even have the burden of confronting the facts - it's significant that the anti-war faction has chosen as its most prominent spokesmen Howard Dean and Obama, who share in common the fact that neither had access to classified intelligence at the time. Obama offers judgment unencumbered by either responsibility or complete information. And beyond Iraq, there's little enough in the file.
So what do we get instead? As voters we're stuck reading tea leaves, looking at who he chooses for his friends, mentors and advisers, poring over his and their every utterance, excavating obscure chapters in his life. Because what we are looking for is some substitute for what we could otherwise glean from his experience.
III. The Role of Advocacy In Politics
Despite the obvious relevance of experience, Lyford - is concerned that "table-pounding partisans" may come off as disingenuous in addressing this issue:
One of the things that I've resisted doing is criticizing Barack Obama for, in Ronald Reagan's words, "youth and inexperience." Clearly, he has nowhere near the track record or experience that one would like to see in the President of the United States. He's been in the US Senate for less than one full term and he's never held any kind of executive position. Any arguments that he's too inexperienced and callow to be elected are legitimate.
But if I were to make them, it would be a lie. It would be to imply that, if only he weren't so young and inexperienced, I might vote for him. And the fact is, based on his entire career, the people he's chosen to align himself with and his voting record, there are no realistic circumstances under which I would ever vote for him.
Not to pick on Lyford, but he's crystallized a common theme here and one worth dispelling, because he's missing a key point about how we make decisions in a democracy - not only does it matter very much that Obama lacks the experience to do the job, but it's very much the job of those of us with strong partisan or ideological attachments to point that out.
The initial misconception here is about the role of partisans - bloggers, pundits, and political professionals who are loyal to one party or whose strong political convictions naturally ally them with one party - in election campaigns. Now, to some extent this is my training as a lawyer talking, but our political system, like our legal system, is adversarial by nature; in the ordinary case, it depends on the partisans of each side to keep the other side honest and marshal the best possible arguments against the other. While there are, of course, exceptions, it's generally true that (a) most political commentary and a lot of the legwork behind it is produced by people with an agenda and (b) most undecided/persuadable voters are less well-informed than the typical partisan commentator. Thus, the partisan commentator's role in providing the best arguments for his or her side is an important and honorable one, without which the system would not work nearly as well.* That's not to deny that there are, just as in the legal system, an enormous number of unprincipled hacks in the field, or that a lot of what you hear can be mind-bendingly hypocritical. In fact, you should always consider the source in any political argument. But the point is that criticism from a position of ideological or partisan commitment is a perfectly respectable way of laying out the things undecided voters need to make up their minds.
Let's use an analogy here. Now, like Lyford, when I look at Obama's view of foreign and national security policy, and his positions on social issues and the kinds of people that would lead him to put on the courts, there's more than enough there to convince me that I could never in good conscience vote for the guy. But does that mean I am indifferent to the fact that Obama is also running on a platform of enormous tax hikes? Of course not; that's another reason to oppose him even if there's already enough reasons to make my mind up. And there's nothing disingenuous about me making the point about Obama's tax-hiking plans to someone who may not have already been decided by his foreign-policy and social-issue views.
One of the reasons why people take it as somehow hypcritical to criticize Obama's inexperience is the malignant effects of "gotcha" politics. Let me explain. Lots of what goes on in political discourse is about criticizing a politician for doing X. Maybe X is "cheating on his wife" or "experimenting with cocaine" or "cheating on his taxes"; maybe it's "voting for tax hikes" or "supporting the Iraq War." Frankly, if you are trying to bring down a public official or defeat a candidate, it can be tempting to look for the magic bullet that singlehandedly removes him or her from the field. And sometimes, people will go out on a limb to argue in depth that "doing X means you must resign/be voted down/be impeached/be indicted," etc.
There are fair arguments about what things are bad enough that they should be grounds for singlehandedly and categorically disqualifying someone from public office or from receiving your vote. But the problem is that the political commentariat seems to have grown too enamored with the idea that pretty much any basis for criticizing a politician must be (1) grounds for total disqualification or (2) utterly irrelevant. Some high points of this mania include disqualifying Douglas Ginsburg from the Supreme Court for smoking pot and Zoe Baird and Linda Chavez from Cabinet posts for not paying nanny taxes and, in Chavez' case, hiring an illegal immigrant. (Of course, the Clinton impeachment was a field day for these sorts of arguments, which I won't revisit here because, really, this post is already long enough).
The "gotcha" attitude with Obama is to argue that his lack of executive experince isn't a big deal because McCain doesn't have it, lack of foreign policy experience isn't a big deal because Bush didn't have it, etc. As I noted above, taken individually, these are valid points. The perilous logical leap is when his defenders argue that since these weaknesses are not disabling individually, they must not be at all relevant even taken collectively. And if one must speak of hypocrisy, it is rather amusing that we heard Democrats the past few years arguing that various Bush appointees were underqualified hacks who lacked the basic qualifications for their jobs (e.g., Miers, Mike Brown), but those same Democrats who were outraged at appointing unqualified people to mid-level jobs in the Administration are suddenly unconcerned about picking a guy without adequate experience for the top job, the guy who appoints all the others.
But for the same reasons why I rejected that style of argument when I came out in opposition to Harriet Miers (here and here) and Mitt Romney, Obama's lack of all the relevant types of experience, taken together, are very much a problem and quite arguably disqualifying by themselves, or at least very substantial reasons to be skeptical of his candidacy. Assuming he does hang on to squeeze Hillary out of the race, Obama is the emptiest vessel ever to get a major party nomination, a man who can't be judged on the results he has achieved because he's scarcely left a trace of results anywhere. It's all too easy to say "yes, we can" when you haven't ever had to be the guy people look to to say "yes we did."
He's never run anything at all, not even a small law practice like John Edwards. Besides his campaign, probably the biggest thing he's ever run was the Harvard Law Review.
He has nothing resembling national security experience or even particularly sustained advocacy on the issue before announcing his candidacy in 2007. The man has apparently hardly even traveled to Europe, to pick one example.
He is running in a contested election outside the insular world of Chicago politics for the first time and has never had any sort of responsibility for political leadership.
He's never served in the military and seems to have scarcely any experience even knowing people who served in the military.
His private-sector business background is negligible.
Are any of these things disqualifying from the Presidency? No. But electing a man who is so seriously lacking in all of them is indeed unprecedented. And that is and should be a central issue in this campaign.
* - A whole separate subject, of course, is the partisan commentator's obligations of ethics and intellectual honesty - what arguments are unfair ones, when you really ought to open fire on your own side, etc. But that's beyond the scope of this post, the point of which is simply that those of us who look at these things from one side or the other can and should still make arguments about things like a candidate's experience.