A common response when someone says that Barack Obama should run for President in 2008 is, “it’s too soon.” I’ve heard this from professors, political operatives, and pundits. To respond, I need to separate the complaint into two components: first, that Obama’s inexperience would damage his chances of winning the presidency; and second, that Obama’s inexperience would prevent him from succeeding in the presidency. When we look back at our country’s recent history, there is little evidence to support either contention. (Full disclosure: I worked on Obama’s Senate campaign in 2004.)
Let’s take the first part of the argument—that Senator Obama’s youth is a liability. Senator Obama will be 47 on election day in 2008. On his election day, Bill Clinton was 46. John F. Kennedy was 43. So if Obama is too young, then JFK was a baby.
But seriously, those who say Senator Obama is too young are using age as a stand-in for experience, an assumption that I, for the moment, will accept. They point out that Obama will have been a senator for fewer than four years if he were to run ’08. They say he needs to get to know Washington better before he runs for president.
What people in Washington forget is that experience in Washington is the greatest liability a politician can have in American politics. Case in point: the last person elected elected from the Senate was Kennedy, and that is not for lack of trying on the part of senators. Voters doubt that people who have built their careers in Washington can be trusted to change Washington.
That critique does not apply just to Obama. Indeed, his lack of a track record in Washington is one of his biggest assets. One source of Obama’s appeal is that Americans think he is different from most politicians, that he hasn’t been corrupted. In other words, Barack Obama is the only senator who can say with credibility that he could transform Washington, D.C. If we acknowledge, as most historians do, that that message is what made Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and, dare I say it, George W. Bush into compelling choices for voters, one would think Obama’s lack of Washington experience would help rather than hurt his chances.
But, fortunately, all this punditry doesn’t matter. What matters is what the voters think. And in the last 50 years, voters in the primaries and general election alike have proven that experience does not determine their presidential vote.
The experience criterion is not a resumé, as if the more you have, the better you’ll be.
What voters are really looking for is a candidate who meets a certain threshold of experience, but such a threshold doesn’t necessarily determine their abilities. Rather, if you’re a governor, it doesn’t matter how small that state is (e.g., Clinton and Arkansas), and if you’re a senator, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been one (seven years for Kennedy); just having been in office is good enough for voters.
Let’s abandon the argument that Obama’s youth hurts his chances at getting elected, and let’s focus on the argument that his youth hurts his chances of being a viable president. Obama is not as inexperienced as some would like us to think, and second, a president-elect’s experience going into the White House has little bearing on whether or not he’ll succeed as president.
Senator Obama had served as a legislator for eight years before he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, and in the Illinois State Senate, he had earned a reputation for showing more interest in passing legislation-—even in the face of a Republican majority—than he was in pleasing the press. His short tenure in Washington has only confirmed that reputation.
As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama has focused on nuclear weapons in former Soviet satellites, has acted as one of the few senators out front on the H.I.V. epidemic and Sudanese genocide in Africa, and has sponsored badly needed legislation on securing our chemical plants. As Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa put it, “Make no mistake—this guy is a work horse, not a show horse.”
Given that one of the few President’s enumerated duties is his role in foreign policy, Barack Obama looks more experienced, not less, than Governors Carter, Clinton, or Bush—let alone, Howard Dean, who responded to questions about his foreign policy inexperience by listing the countries he had visited as a tourist.
More importantly, experience before the presidency does not guarantee success in that office. Herbert Hoover, for example, was a brilliant administrator, running President Wilson’s home front during World War I and serving as Commerce Secretary under President Harding. He was nominated largely because of his experience. And look at how that turned out. Jimmy Carter had been a Governor for four years, Reagan for eight, and Clinton for 12—and we argue endlessly about their successes and failures.
Obama should run for President in 2008. Our country needs him, and so does the world, but I doubt I could do that argument justice. Hopefully, I won’t be in that position in 2008. Hopefully, he’ll be making the case himself.