Presidential Experience Redux

Is Mitt Romney the least experienced major-party presidential nominee since1940?

In yesterday’s post, “Obama vs. Romney: Experience Factor,” I argued that it’s rather amusing for the Obama campaign to argue that we can’t afford to turn our foreign policy over to someone as inexperienced as Mitt Romney, given how incredibly inexperienced Barack Obama was at this point last cycle. Steve Benen notes that the Republican National Committee is going further, though, and arguing that Obama is “Still Not Ready.” As I noted in yesterday’s post–as well as a June 2010 post titled “Obama’s Executive Experience“–that’s a really dumb argument. Like it or not, Obama has been presidenting for quite some time now and there’s no better preparation for the White House than that.

Benen goes further, though,  arguing that, “Romney is the least experienced major-party presidential nominee since Republican Wendell Wilkie lost to FDR in 1940. If Romney wins, he’ll be the least experienced president since Woodrow Wilson, who won exactly 100 years ago, despite only having been governor of New Jersey for two years before his national campaign.” Just off the top of my head, that’s obviously absurd but here’s Benen’s proof:

You see what he did there?

He’s treating as equal everything from military service to positions as a “state executive,” mayor, state legislator, presidential cabinet, and “executive” experience, the last presumably meaning the vice presidency. That’s, to say the least, a stretch. You have to go back a long way, indeed, to find a president who didn’t have one of the following on his resume: Vice President of the United States, state governor, United States Senator, or Army four-star rank.

Certainly, I don’t think time as a state legislator counts. It has next to no bearing on the presidency.

For that matter, neither does low level military experience; I say that as someone with service as a junior officer.  That John Kennedy was a war hero counted as a bonus for him but it’s hardly the same thing as Eisenhower’s running World War II. I’d say only experience as a general or flag officer “counts.” (And, yes, I said the same thing about John McCain. His heroic conduct as a prisoner of war was a huge bonus on the character front. But tactical level experience really doesn’t translate into grand strategy.) It turns out that many of Benen’s readers agree.

“State executive” is pretty tricky. Certainly, a governorship counts. Indeed, it seems to be the voters’ favorite resume item. Lieutenant governor? Attorney general? Secretary of state? Agriculture commissioner? Let’s just say they’re steeply discounted, moreso in smaller states.

Mayor is tricky. Running New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago is probably harder than running most states. Running, say, Wasilla, Alaska . . . less so. Yes, it’s executive experience. But it’s much lower down the totem pole than a major governorship.

Presidential cabinet service? I’d say it counts, although probably on a sliding scale. That is, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense are big time executive jobs, service in which definitely helps prepare one for president. Ditto non-cabinet roles (or, occasional cabinet roles) like CIA Director or National Security Advisor. Running, say, the Department of Veterans Affairs or Housing and Urban Development, though, probably ranks somewhere between being mayor of a medium sized city and a lieutenant governorship.

As I noted during the last cycle, I’m also willing to give serious credit to First Lady, at least in cases like Hillary Clinton where they clearly played a key advisory role to their husbands.

Yes, I think Romney’s business experience is meaningful. For that matter, so was Obama’s experience as a law professor and as a community organizer. They help hone skills that are useful to a politician. But we have to weight experience differently, with the big ticket items being the vice presidency and a governorship, with exceptions for things like Senate Majority Leader, Secretary of State or Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or running WWII.

Obama’s chartable experience in 2008 was a little under four years in the Senate–the vast bulk of which he spent campaigning for president. And, as I’ve noted multiple times now in multiple posts, it doesn’t seem to much matter. While I disagree with a lot of his policy decisions, he’s been a very effective leader, assembled a solid team, and done a creditable job as president. There have been flubs along the way, some of which might have been avoided if he’d been more seasoned, but that’s just the nature of our system: we tend to hire relative amateurs to the presidency.

And, to reiterate, if we’re running the 2012 election on the basis of who’s most experienced, Obama wins. Three-plus years as a wartime president trumps four years as governor of a small state. Romney’s only chance is to convince people that Obama has demonstrated that he doesn’t deserve four more years, not that he’s wet behind the ears.

An earlier version of this posting gave Obama credit for only two years in the Senate.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. merl says:

    He’s a pretty experienced liar, that’s for sure.

  2. steve says:

    I think this is pushback from the continuing, and accelerating as the election nears, complaints from the right that Obama was not vetted and did not have enough experience. We now have plenty of experience and policy with which we can judge Obama, which is what I would like to see concentrated upon, but I think their is that emotional need to attack the person rather than the policy which is met by making such claims.

    Romney has enough experience, it is just difficult to know what he really believes. Some of his foreign policy statements seem to have the single goal of opposing anything Obama has said or done. Looking at his advisers, I would expect him to follow the same broad policies Obama has followed, with the exception that I believe he is more likely to involve us in a war with Iran. On domestic issues he has made a number of impossible promises. I expect him to be more pragmatic than he has sounded in the primary.

    Steve

  3. michael reynolds says:

    two years in the Senate–the vast bulk of which he spent campaigning for president.

    I would just like to point out that in this day and age every politician spends all of his time running for either re-election or the next office up the ladder. I’m not sure that spending six years as a senator running for re-election is any better than two years as senator running for president.

    More broadly, all experience is useful to a person wise enough to profit from it. Mr. Romney’s take-away from his experience seems to be that you can lie with impunity and promise one thing on Monday and its exact opposite on Wednesday. In other words, I think what he has learned is utter contempt for the intelligence of everyone not named Mitt.

  4. James says:

    @michael reynolds: Well, Willard—technically.

  5. gVOR08 says:

    Sure looked to me like Obama learned more about policy and politics in his two years in the Senate than John McCain did in his what, 60 or 80 years.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I’m not sure that spending six years as a senator running for re-election is any better than two years as senator running for president.

    Obama is a quick study; I think he learned more during those two years than most. But compare his Senate experience to Hillary’s. While I’m not her biggest fan, by all accounts she put her shoulder into it and really worked hard to be a good Senator. Obama clearly–and, as it turns out, correctly–decided that it was his moment to seize and went straight away for the brass ring.

    More broadly, all experience is useful to a person wise enough to profit from it.

    That’s true, insofar as it goes. I’m making a narrow point: That four years of being a city councilman isn’t equivalent to four years as Vice President, Secretary of State, or governor.

    @gVOR08:

    Sure looked to me like Obama learned more about policy and politics in his two years in the Senate than John McCain did in his what, 60 or 80 years.

    No, I think McCain’s a genuine expert in national security policy. In addition to his 20-odd years in the Navy, including attending the National War College, he has clearly been actively involved in the foreign relations committee work of the Senate. That he’s overly enamored of military intervention to do good isn’t a sign of lack of knowledge but rather of ideology trumping cold, hard reasoning.

  7. Tano says:

    Obama’s chartable experience in 2008 was two years in the Senate–the vast bulk of which he spent campaigning for president.

    Four years. He was elected in ’04.

  8. anjin-san says:

    No, I think McCain’s a genuine expert in national security policy.

    That probably explains why he goes around singing “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran”. Or why he needs Lieberman to whisper the answers to simple questions in his ear.

    An unserious man for an unserious party.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t think experience means much in the abstract, by category so to speak. I think it’s entirely subjective.

    General Curtis LeMay — ran the strategic bombing campaign against Japan and the Berlin Airlift. Ended up a Veep candidate in a racist nutbar’s presidential campaign.

    Gerald Levin, ran a very big Fortune 500 corporation. Pretty good resume bullet point. And then he bought AOL. How’s that for experience?

    Jimmy Carter — one of Rickover’s boys in the nuclear navy, farmer, state legislator, governor of a middling state. Excellent resume. Not a great president.

    George W. Bush . . . enough said.

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    @James Joyner: I don’t think that McCain learned the right things in the military. He would have found away to stay in Iraq and would have started a couple of new wars by now – think Iran and Syria.
    That said that chart is just plain silly.

  11. sam says:

    @JJ

    No, I think McCain’s a genuine expert in national security policy. In addition to his 20-odd years in the Navy, including attending the National War College, he has clearly been actively involved in the foreign relations committee work of the Senate. That he’s overly enamored of military intervention to do good isn’t a sign of lack of knowledge but rather of ideology trumping cold, hard reasoning.

    Which means, I guess, that at the end of the day, all that experience counts for nothing if your policy prescriptions are guided by an ideology that trumps that experience.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @sam:

    I guess, that at the end of the day, all that experience counts for nothing if your policy prescriptions are guided by an ideology that trumps that experience.

    I work with a lot of folks who are more expert on the inner workings of US national security policy than I am. Career Senior Executive Service types with advanced degrees from prestige schools and the commensurate IQs. And most of them are either liberal interventionists or neocons–wanting to intervene to solve the nasty problems of the world whenever they crop up. Sometimes it works out pretty well but, mostly, it’s a recipe for disaster. But I understand the impulse.

  13. Hey Norm says:

    Romney has a great deal of experience enriching a select few on the backs of many. Jobs that others created using his capital investment are $10 an hour jobs.
    Based on that experience he has called for mortgages to go into foreclosure…GM and Chrysler to fail…and thought going after OBL was too hard. (Of course he has also changed his tune on those issues.)
    Experience is like youth…it’s wasted on some.

  14. Dazedandconfused says:

    @ James Joyner,

    My own personal theory is Obama ran to set himself up for the next rodeo. That means raising ones profile, which is always handy for getting re-elected in the Senate, or pretty much for anything.

    Surprise surprise…Hillary’s high priced campaign staff turned out to be run by people who only thought they were great. He messed up an won the thing. The man is too smart to have thought he stood much of a chance when he chose to run.

    Presidents should ideally be people who already have an established following in Congress, or at least in their party. It’s not a job for rookies, yet our popular vote system seems to favor charisma over bona fides.

  15. Wayne says:

    Having three to four years experince of doing things wrong isn’t a good reason to reelect a President.

  16. anjin-san says:

    Having three to four years experince of doing things wrong isn’t a good reason to reelect a President.

    Perhaps. But knowing you don’t approve of him probably is.

  17. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @James Joyner: “No, I think McCain’s a genuine expert in national security policy.”

    Now I have to question whether you know the definition of expertise. Thanks.

  18. Hey Norm says:

    Doing things wrong?
    Saved the US from a second Great Depression, and the Private Sector has created jobs for something like 25 straight months. Wayne perhaps would have had us rely on Public Sector jobs like Reagan and both Bush’s did to recover from recessions in their Presidencies.
    Saved the Auto Industry without nationalizing it. I guess Wayne would have nationalized it.
    Saved the Banking Industry without nationalizing it. I guess Wayne would have nationalized it.
    Got Private Sector Insurance for people with pre-exsting conditions. I guess Wayne would have used Government Health Care.
    Rid the world of OBL, al Awlaki, Quadaffi, and has decimated al Queda. I guess Wayne would have sided with Bush and Romeny…it’s too hard.
    Got out of Iraq, one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in US history, on schedule. I guess Wayne would have stayed in Iraq forever.
    As the song goes…if that’s doing it wrong I don’t want to do it right.

  19. al-Ameda says:

    @Wayne:

    Having three to four years experince of doing things wrong isn’t a good reason to reelect a President.

    I know I’m still angry that he took actions to prevent the economy from collapsing into another Great Depression. Why didn’t he let GM go bankrupt (as Mitt Romney wanted) and let the economy shed hundreds of thousands of auto industry jobs?

  20. MBunge says:

    @steve: “Looking at his advisers, I would expect him to follow the same broad policies Obama has followed…I expect him to be more pragmatic than he has sounded in the primary.”

    This drives me up the wall. I don’t know what Romney might actually do as President and neither does anyone else, probably including Romney. But if Romney is in the White House, he will almost certainly have a Republican House and likely a Republican Senate and they’ll be full of people who’ve just seen their previous 4 years of irresponsibilty and fanaticism publicly validated. The idea that Romney, under those circumstances, is going to basically follow the same path as Obama is so childishly irrational it almost makes me want to put a gun in my mouth and end it all.

    Mike

  21. An Interested Party says:

    But if Romney is in the White House, he will almost certainly have a Republican House and likely a Republican Senate and they’ll be full of people who’ve just seen their previous 4 years of irresponsibilty and fanaticism publicly validated.

    It really will be the third term of George W. Bush, and this time, just like the last time, conservatives and Repulicans will be able to disown Romney as a RINO after he and his GOP Congress have done so much damage, just like they disowned Bush…

  22. sam says:

    @Wayne:

    Having three to four years experince of doing things wrong isn’t a good reason to reelect a President.

    Worked for George the Second.

  23. mattb says:

    @James Joyner:

    I work with a lot of folks who are more expert on the inner workings of US national security policy than I am. Career Senior Executive Service types with advanced degrees from prestige schools and the commensurate IQs. And most of them are either liberal interventionists or neocons–wanting to intervene to solve the nasty problems of the world…

    This seems a problem that is inherently bound up with the entire idea of “policy” as a field of study. The promise is to solve the world’s problems through implemented new and better policies — i.e. intervention. Is there any policy program in the world that takes a “hands off” approach when it comes to policy?

  24. James Joyner says:

    @mattb: I’ve heard that criticism before but don’t buy it. Non-interference was the bipartisan consensus until maybe 20 years ago. Nobody ever talked of taking military action against, say, Idi Amin.

  25. Wayne says:

    @ Hey Normn
    He didn’t save the US from second great depression but instead cause the recovery to stall. He lost a great deal more jobs than he ever so called “created”. He ran up over 5 trillion dollars of deficits in less than four years and is piling on over a trillion more per year for the foreseeable future. The private sector is where we need to create jobs not the public. Obama has relied greatly on the public sector jobs and ant to increase it even further. He has made the success of Iraq into a failure. Screw up on Libya. Policies toward Iran and much of the rest of the world is in shambles. He did not save the Auto industry. He stole it from the stockholders and gave it to the unions. Yeah right great job there.

    It was Bush that save the banking industry that was in trouble in the first place because of the liberal forcing them to practice unsafe banking policies. UBL and al Qaeda results were from Bush’s policies put in place which Obama condemned as a Senator. The military and Intelligence agencies deserved the bulk of the credit for success in that area.

    Stagnate economy, oppressive regulations, chasing business overseas, high unemployment rate, foreign policies screw-ups left and right, and extremely high deficits, yeah I would say that is doing it wrong. Yes it is sad that you do not want to do it right.

  26. James says:

    @Wayne:

    The private sector is where we need to create jobs not the public. Obama has relied greatly on the public sector jobs and ant to increase it even further.

    Not even close to true.

  27. anjin-san says:

    Great, now we are not just getting Fox News talking points, but dumbed down Fox News talking points.

  28. matt says:

    @James: Wayne is rarely ever close to the truth..