Does Experience Matter?

This year’s Democratic primary battle was remarkable for having three top tier candidates who had little experience while the second tier candidates, each of whom probably had more experience than all three in the top tier combined, went no where. While the most experienced of the three top tier candidates did ultimately win, the primary battle might still be interpreted as meaning that experience was not a highly sought after characteristic by primary voters.

I was somewhat skeptical of Obama at first, but certainly can see why he won the nomination while the second tier candidates I was initially interested in did not. With voters wanting a change from politics as usual as practiced by both parties, it is not surprising that a relative Washington outsider won the nomination. There has often been speculation about a total outsider from government coming in to change things, but such candidates are rarely taken seriously. Compared to previous outsiders, Obama has enough experience to give him credibility, including the most years of legislative experience of the top tier candidates, to be a credible choice. His experience teaching Constitutional law is of value after eight years of George Bush. His experience as a community organizer both contributed to him not echoing the top-down Nanny-state positions of Hillary Clinton, as well as providing him with experience which helped him beat the unbeatable Clinton machine.

McClatchy has reviewed the role of experience and found it to be a poor predictor of presidential success:

“Experience matters, but its importance is terribly overstated,” said historian Robert Dallek, the author of recent books about Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

Presidents with sterling resumes often have turned out to be busts, usually because they lacked the key quality a good president needs: sound judgment.

“John Quincy Adams understood the world, but he didn’t have a political gene in his makeup,” Richard Norton Smith, a presidential scholar at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., said of the nation’s sixth president, who isn’t remembered as successful.

Yet presidents with far lesser credentials have triumphed. John F. Kennedy was 43 years old when he took office in 1961, four years younger than Obama. Kennedy’s early years were rocky, Dallek said, but “he was a quick learner” and his third and final year as president was masterful…

“The presidency has too many moving pieces. Trying to gauge whether experience matters really eludes measurement,” said Carl Pinkele, a presidential expert at Ohio Wesleyan University, in Delaware, Ohio.

Scholars suggest two yardsticks — executive background and foreign policy expertise — but they also find both flawed.

Herbert Hoover was the widely admired U.S. food administrator in World War I, presidential adviser at the Versailles Conference and secretary of commerce in the 1920s.

“Yet his management of the economy was a disaster,” Dallek said of Hoover’s one-term presidency, which began months before the Great Depression.

Jimmy Carter also brought a management background, taking office in 1977 after one term as the governor of Georgia and more than 20 years running his family business. But “he was then universally criticized for being a micromanager in the White House,” said John Baick, an associate professor of history at Western New England College, in Springfield, Mass.

President Bush has a master of business administration degree from Harvard University, served nearly two terms as the governor of Texas and surrounded himself in the White House with experienced advisers. But after seven and a half years in power he holds a dismal public-approval rating rooted largely in the Iraq war and the staggering economy.

Foreign policy also has proved to be an unreliable barometer.

Two presidents regarded as among the nation’s weakest — John Quincy Adams and James Buchanan — had extensive diplomatic resumes. Adams held several diplomatic posts, was the secretary of state under President James Monroe and negotiated an end to the War of 1812. But he met difficulty when he tried to improve the economy with a road- and canal-building program and high tariffs, and he was trounced when he sought re-election in 1828.

Buchanan, who served as James Polk’s secretary of state in the 1840s, spent the three years before his 1856 election as minister to Great Britain.

Yet “he’s quite possibly the worst president in American history, because of his inability to effectively manage Southern secession and the slavery issue,” said Chris Dolan, a professor of political science at Lebanon Valley College, in Annville, Pa.

Similarly, Bush’s father had been the U.S. envoy to China, United Nations ambassador, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and vice president for eight years.

But he was seen as an ineffective manager of the nation’s economy, and the nation spurned his 1992 re-election bid, giving him the lowest popular-vote total of any incumbent president in 80 years.

The article goes on to stress the value of judgement, which has been one of Obama’s strong points. Obama knew better than to go to war in Iraq when McCain, Clinton, and Edwards were all in favor. In addition to questioning the Iraq war, he has questioned aspects of the drug war when his opponents have supported the status quo. He has also had more sensible positions on economic issues and health care than his opponents. He has been willing to consider the views of both liberals and conservatives, while Clintonistas have freaked out at even a simple mention of Ronald Reagan in an accurate historical context. I would much rather have a candidate with good judgement such as Obama asopposed to someone with experience who shows little understanding of the issues such as McCain.

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