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Obama More Experienced Than We Thought?

Governing magazine executive editor Alan Ehrenhalt argues that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Barack Obama’s eight years of experience as an Illinois state legislature.

Twenty-first century U.S. senators are, virtually by the nature of the job, gadflies. They flit from one issue to another, generally developing little expertise on any of them; devote a large portion of their day to press conferences and other publicity opportunities; follow a daily schedule printed on a 3×5 card that a member of their staff has prepared; depend even more heavily on staff for detailed and time-consuming legislative negotiation that they are too busy to attend; and develop few close relationships with colleagues, nearly all of whom are as busy as they are.

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By contrast, what do state legislators do? At their worst, they are doggedly parochial, people who tend first and foremost to the interests of a relatively small constituency. At their best, they keep all the state’s significant issues in mind; it is possible to do that in a state legislature in a way that is not possible in Washington. During the years that Obama served in Springfield, 1997-2005, he was forced to wrestle with the minutiae of health-care policy, utility deregulation, transportation funding, school aid, and a host of other issues that are vitally important to America’s coming years, but that U.S. senators are usually able to dispose of with a quick once-over. State legislators have to do this largely on their own, without ubiquitous staff guidance, because staffing is not lavish even in the more professional state capitols. They enter into day-to-day bargaining relationships over the details of legislation with colleagues of both parties; there is no one else to do it for them. At the end of the session, they are likely to know the strengths and quirks of nearly everyone who serves in their chamber.

There’s something to this, to be sure. Then again, as Ehrenhalt admits, state legislator is a part-time gig. Obama was of counsel to his law firm, doing community activism, and sitting on a host of corporate and professional boards during his time in the state senate. So, it’s not as if he had his nose to the grindstone for eight years.

Further, there are only 59 members of the Illinois State Senate, as compared to 100 U.S. Senators. And the former lacks the latter’s professional staffing. So how is it that these guys avoid “flitting from issue to issue”? Wouldn’t it be easier to develop genuine expertise with a staff and fewer committee assignments?

And, even if we’re to believe that a year in a state legislature is roughly equal to a year in the Senate, Obama has eight years plus his four in the senate, so 12 years total. John McCain has been in Congress since 1981. And he was a Navy officer for twenty-seven years before that. Doesn’t McCain still come out ahead in the “experience” game, no matter how you slice it?

Ultimately, the voters aren’t going to pick their next president by looking at their résumés. Hillary Clinton tried to beat Obama on an “experience” platform and failed. But, surely, if experience is going to be a factor, it’s one that redounds to McCain’s benefit.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Derrick says:

    James,

    Even the biggest Obama backer wouldn’t argue that he has more experience than McCain. This argument instead goes to the absurd notion not that he’s less experienced but that he’s unqualified. You hear it mostly from right wing hacks and the NoQuarter dead-enders but it is still out there. It plays into the meme that Obama is some “Affirmative Action” candidate whose only qualifications are that he gives a good speech and he’s a negro. The silly thing is that when people point out his experience in comparison to Honest Abe, you hear that Obama’s no Abraham Lincoln, in which case Abraham Lincoln wasn’t President Lincoln until he actually proved himself in office

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  2. Alex Knapp says:

    But, surely, if experience is going to be a factor, it’s one that redounds to McCain’s benefit.

    Really? McCain’s only worked for one employer: The United States Federal Government. He has not worked in the private sector. He has not worked in the non-profit sector. He has not taught classes on the U.S. Constitution. He has worked in the Navy, the House of Representatives, and the Senate–that’s it. Surely breadth of experience counts for something, too.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    This argument instead goes to the absurd notion not that he’s less experienced but that he’s unqualified.

    That’s a fair point. And, yes, Obama is or will be “qualified” by inauguration day if he’s elected. If you’re not “qualified” when you start campaigning, you’ll get that way running for the job and putting together a transition team.

    McCain’s only worked for one employer: The United States Federal Government.

    I can’t imagine the public is going to hold half a century of public service against McCain. It’s not like he was working for HUD or something; people like the Navy.

    Indeed, aside from a few months as president of Columbia University, Eisenhower had spent his whole life in the Army before becoming president. Granted, Ike’s experience was sui generis.

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  4. anjin-san says:

    I can’t imagine the public is going to hold half a century of public service against McCain.

    I don’t think anyone is holding it against him, but considering that so many on the right argue that the federal government is the cause of many of our problems… well it could make for an interesting argument.

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  5. c. wagener says:

    One rather obvious difference between Lincoln and Obama is that Lincoln didn’t show he was clueless regarding history and economics. Examples abound: JFK and Khrushchev, Nixon and China, Reagan and Gorbachev, capital gains, prosecution of terrorists in the 1990′s, the difference between Gitmo and Nuremberg, windfall profits, the reasons for the Great Depression, the reasons for 1970′s inflation. He doesn’t demonstrate even a basic understanding of any of these. Combine that with his “not the man he knew” routine for all the scumbags he’s tight with and I see no reason to compare him to Lincoln.

    Neither Obama nor Einstein visited Antarctica. Therefore Obama is a physicist. Amazing.

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  6. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    So Anjin, since Obama plans to expand the Federal Government beyond anything you currently imagine, just how is he going to solve the problem. Socialized medicine? That idiot wants to tell you how high or low you can keep your thermostat. You know more about me and how I feel about things than you truly do about Obama. All he spouts is hope and change. You better hope the change he has in mind does not eliminate liberty. Obama has the thinnest resume of anyone running for this high office. He voted “present” 150 times in the Illinois state senate. James, Obama has not served 4 years as a Senator. He has been running for President since he was elected, basically unopposed.

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  7. Derrick says:

    One rather obvious difference between Lincoln and Obama is that Lincoln didn’t show he was clueless regarding history and economics.

    Well, leaving aside the fact that you put some dubious examples of how Obama is clueless about history and economics, you didn’t once demonstrate the Lincoln was some savant going into his Presidency. I’m not saying that Lincoln wasn’t a hybrid of Keynes and Beschloss, but I don’t see where you even put down limited evidence to demonstrate this.

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  8. c. wagener says:

    Derrick,

    Sorry for the lack of links.

    Knock yourself out man.

    As for Lincoln, spend as much time as you want on this. I will certainly acknowledge that I really have no bloody idea about Lincoln’s views on economics, but as presidents before FDR generally followed the 10th amendment, it didn’t matter as much.

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  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    To compare the times Lincoln lived in with what exists today seems foolish. While Lincoln was needed for his time. Obama is an unknown. Nobody knows what he represents. We know many of his associates hold views best kept from the American public. His early connection with Marxists and radicals (Ayers and Dohrn, et al) make one suspicious of his politics. His word is no good (public financing pledge). He is willing to outright lie to those whose vote he needs (AIPAC) or NAFTA and Ohio. He displays little loyalty (list is too long to write out here) and he is a closet Muslim.

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  10. Derrick says:

    While Lincoln was needed for his time. Obama is an unknown.

    Again, I don’t think that you understand that this is an opinion and not a fact. Of course, Lincoln was necessary for his time but that was only after he actually proved it. Obviously Obama, who represents Marxism, Racism and the Sith to you, doesn’t fit your unbiased criteria as a potentially effective President, but it’s completely unprovable. Abraham Lincoln came in with a history of losing, a mealy-mouth stance on slavery and relatively thin credentials and is considered one of our greatest Presidents, while Nixon and Buchanan had some of the most impressive credentials in Presidential candidates and were miserable failures.

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  11. c. wagener says:

    Derrick,

    I attempted to respond yesterday with several links. Unfortunately that post is in an OTB administrative black hole. Your basic argument seems to be since we got lucky with Lincoln, lets roll the dice again with Obama.

    When Obama thinks the JFK and Khrushchev meeting went well (resulting in the view of Khrushchev, in the Cuban missile crisis and the loss of Turkish missiles, 50 years of Castro, and the construction of the Berlin wall, all due to Khrushchev’s perceived weakness of JFK), I believe it’s reasonable to say Obama lacks an understanding of history. Ditto for his comparison to Reagan meeting Gorby in his second term post Perestroika with meeting with Iran in his first year with no preconditions. His thought that the depression was a result of unequal income distribution, 1970′s inflation due to a lack of educational investment, thinking the defendants at Nuremberg has constitutional rights, etc., etc.

    You’re applying a negative correlation (lack of experience versus performance) to one instance where it was overwhelmed by other factors (Grant, Sherman) and declaring it a positive correlation.

    If you want to compare Lincoln to someone currently in politics the obvious guy is Bush. A man who oversaw an unpopular, yet ultimately successful war making a myriad of mistakes, hated by the press and the left as inarticulate idiot. Just like Lincoln.

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  12. Grewgills says:

    A man who oversaw an unpopular, yet ultimately successful war

    It’s a bit early to be making that claim.

    hated by the press and the left as inarticulate idiot

    Lincoln was the more progressive candidate and that is where his support came from. It was the conservatives that actively opposed him, some going so far as to attempt to remove themselves from the union.

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  13. c. wagener says:

    It’s a bit early to be making that claim.

    As desperate as the left is for America to lose to Islamic psychopaths, that calculus will change in November. If the Democrats win they can’t risk jumping through the many hoops that would be required at that point to bring about defeat. If the Republicans win the policy will remain essentially the same.

    Lincoln was the more progressive candidate and that is where his support came from. It was the conservatives that actively opposed him, some going so far as to attempt to remove themselves from the union.

    I had no idea the New York press tried to leave the Union. Thanks for the info. It’s also interesting to find out that copperheads were conservatives. It reminds me of the brilliant quote “that guy’s to the right of Stalin!”.

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  14. yo says:

    A good hunk of Barack’s IL senatorial “experience” can actually be summed up thusly:

    Emil “I’m gonna’ make me a US senator” Jones.

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