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.
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.