Presidential Experience

Steve Benen challenges Matt Bai‘s assertion that Barack Obama “would set a new precedent for inexperience in the White House.”

In fact, he believes Obama “fares quite well when compared to his 2008 rivals” and provides this table for years in elected office by next November:

* Obama: 11 years (7 state Senate, 4 U.S. Senate)
* Clinton: 8 years (8 U.S. Senate)
* Edwards: 6 years (6 U.S. Senate)
* Giuliani: 8 years (two, four-year mayoral terms)
* Romney: 4 years (one four-year gubernatorial term)
* McCain: 26 years (4 U.S. House, 22 U.S. Senate)
* Thompson: 8 years (8 U.S. Senate)

[…]

Kevin Drum, not too long ago, tallied the number of years of political experience each president since FDR had before he became president (up until Bush): 22, 23, 0, 14, 26, 18, 26, 14, 14, 22, 16. (The zero was Eisenhower.) By this standard, practically all of the major 2008 contenders are relatively inexperienced. (If we include Clinton’s eight years as First Lady, her tally is far more impressive and in line with historical precedent, but I’m inclined not to count it.)

It seems to me that this is a rather silly way to count “experience.” Dwight Eisenhower’s years running an international military coalition, as Army chief of staff, and NATO commander aren’t significant preparation for the presidency? Yet 7 years in the Illinois state senate are? Surely, that’s not reasonable.

Rudy Giuliani clerked for a federal judge and served in various appointed positions in the executive branch, including stints as a U.S. Attorney and Associate Attorney General. I can’t imagine that’s not much more useful preparation for running the executive branch than service in a state legislature. Running the Olympics and a multi-million dollar business, as Romney did, should count for something, I should think, although I’m honestly not sure how much.

And, frankly, I’m very much inclined to include Clinton’s eight years in her husband’s White House. Aside from perhaps the vice presidency, there’s probably not much better vantage point from which to observe the day-to-day responsibilities of the job. While the charge that she was effectively her husband’s “co-president” is exaggerated, she was certainly a key advisor on policy issues.

I’d also disagree with Steve’s assertion that Obama has more relevant experience than the current occupant had when he was elected. It’s true that six years as governor of a state that doesn’t give its governor a lot of power is a rather thin resume. Still, it’s better preparation than four years as a junior senator, two of which were as a member of the minority party.

Generally speaking, legislative experience just isn’t that relevant for executive office. The skill sets are almost entirely without overlap. I don’t consider Thompson and Edwards to have much relevant experience at all. On the other hand, John McCain, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd have been in the Senate long enough to have chaired major committees and developed substantial policy expertise. How well that translates into executive decision-making, though, is unclear.

The voters seem to share my skepticism: They haven’t elected a Member of Congress to the presidency since John F. Kennedy in 1960 and hadn’t done it before that since Warren Harding in 1920. The vice presidency and large state governorships are much more likely paths to election.

That said, we’re dealing with a very small N. Only 40 men have been president, fewer still in the modern era. I’m not sure we can pinpoint what the best preparation is. We’ve had lousy presidents and good ones who have come up from the vice presidency, the Congress, the cabinet, governorships, and the military. Obama has almost exactly the same political resume as Abraham Lincoln, almost universally considered among the greats and Edwards has about as much experience as John Kennedy. (Insert your own Lloyd Benson joke here.)

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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. Andy says:

    “Intelligence and common sense.”

    And the question, Alex, is, “What are more important than experience?”

  2. James Joyner says:

    “Intelligence and common sense.”

    And the question, Alex, is, “What are more important than experience?”

    We’ve certainly had plenty of incredibly bright presidents who were awful at it. Jimmy Carter is the most recent example.

    The problem is that, unless someone has experience running an executive operation, there’s not much basis for voters to judge their “common sense” as it applies to executive decision-making. Further, all of the serious candidates, and many of the unserious ones, are pretty bright and, presumably, possessed of “common sense.”

    Those are barriers to entry, not effective screening tools.

  3. Alex Knapp says:

    In fairness to Obama, I think that his years as a community organizer are probably quite relevant to the presidency–more so than Giuliani’s years as US Attorney, anyway.

  4. James Joyner says:

    In fairness to Obama, I think that his years as a community organizer are probably quite relevant to the presidency–more so than Giuliani’s years as US Attorney, anyway.

    Presidents don’t do a lot of grassroots work. They do, however, run the Justice Department. An intimate understanding of how federal law enforcement works would seem to be pretty useful.

  5. Alex Knapp says:

    Presidents don’t do a lot of grassroots work.

    No, but as a grassroots organizer, you gain experience in leading and delgation, a working knowledge of compromise, and a “bottoms-up” view of legislation.

    They do, however, run the Justice Department.

    Most of the “running of the Justice Department” falls on the shoulders of the Attorney General. The President may set some broad policy, but he’s not really doing any micromanagement there. (And when Presidents do micromanage Justice, the results are usually less than optimal.)

  6. Triumph says:

    Aside from perhaps the vice presidency, there’s probably not much better vantage point from which to observe the day-to-day responsibilities of the job.

    Miss Lewinsky might object to this characterization!

  7. Triumph says:

    Most of the “running of the Justice Department” falls on the shoulders of the Attorney General.

    The exception, of course, is the case of the current occupant of the AG chair.

    In the Gonzo justice department, management seems to be the purview of the low-level hacks like Monica Goodling.

  8. Republican primary voters are only semi-keen on executive experience. Romney and Giuliani are both frontrunners but the man with the most goverment executive experience, Tommy Thompson, is way back in the pack.

  9. Triumph says:

    Tommy Thompson, is way back in the pack.

    Just wait until he deploys his secret weapon: countless gratuitous photo-ops on his Harley.

    T-squared will then swiftly surpass the lesser candidates!

  10. Bill says:

    Republican primary voters are only semi-keen on executive experience.

    Republican voters tend to vote for ‘daddy’ and/or the guy who talks the toughest. This is why it could be several generations before we see a woman be the Republican candidate. Because in the Republican party they know their place, don’t they. Our current leaders sure talk tough, but Bush was AWOL from his cushy assignment (requested training in an aircraft that was never to see service in Vietnam) in the Air National Guard. Cheney sought and got five student deferments from Vietnam. Where were they when it was time to “Cowboy up?” Looks like they did, when their butts weren’t on the line.

  11. Bill says:

    If we are looking for experience, why aren’t we talking about Bill Richardson? He’s in a second term as Governor. He ran a large, important federal agency (DOE). Ambassador to the UN. Foreign diplomat. Congressman. Sounds pretty experienced to me.

  12. James Joyner says:

    why aren’t we talking about Bill Richardson?

    I dunno. Honestly, I think he’s the best general election candidate among the Democratic field. Then again, I like Joe Biden, too, and he’s below Dennis Kucinich in the polls.

  13. Richardson is the only Democrat I could think about voting for. The guy is the most serious about foreign policy and has a ton of experience. I could even look past how the Clinton North Korea deal.

    The problem with Richardson and Tommy Thompson is while they both possess plenty of executive experience they lack the “vision” thing. You could see them being competent as President but not really inspiring.

  14. floyd says:

    It’s the PUPPETEER, not the puppet that needs experience![lol]

  15. G.A.Phillips says:

    Republican voters tend to vote for ‘daddy’ and/or the guy who talks the toughest. This is why it could be several generations before we see a woman be the Republican candidate. Because in the Republican party they know their place, don’t they. Our current leaders sure talk tough, but Bush was AWOL from his cushy assignment (requested training in an aircraft that was never to see service in Vietnam) in the Air National Guard. Cheney sought and got five student deferments from Vietnam. Where were they when it was time to “Cowboy up?” Looks like they did, when their butts weren’t on the line.

    And you Democrats like the guy with the biggest empty promises, like the great Clinton, and he was protesting our war against communism on communist soil instead of cowboying up, and he is like your greatest President.

    and as a(R)vote, I like Mike, but he is not on your list.