In February of 2008, while the primary season was still in full swing, David Von Dreihle wrote a column titled: “Does Experience Matter in a President?” His central question was whether or not the fact that Barack Obama’s limited experience of eight years in the Illinois legislature and three years in the United States Senate was something voters should take into consideration. Notably missing from this résumé was any real executive leadership experience (save running a community organization).
At the time of Von Driehle’s essay, Obama was still in the midst of his battle with Hilary Clinton to secure the Democrat Party nomination and was facing the charges from the Clinton administration that he was, indeed, unprepared. It was around this time that the “3 AM Phone Call” ad was run by the Clinton team.
For the past 50 years, executive leadership, whether serving as governor of a state or Vice President of the country, has either consciously or subconsciously been crucial to the electorate’s choice for President. We need to go back to 1960 to find a President and Vice-President in Kennedy and Johnson to find a similar level of inexperience in the Executive Branch that we find today with Obama and Biden.
Von Driehle referenced Kennedy’s first 100 days in office and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion as evidence that the inexperienced administration was ill-equipped to deal with the national security crisis. Historians largely agree today that the Kennedy administration made many missteps in confronting the Soviet Union’s attempt to base nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Some pundits gave Obama high marks for his 15 months in office based upon his passage of the stimulus bill and the health care overhaul. This evaluation is consistent with some presidential scholars who base their evaluation of presidencies on their legislative successes. While this is indeed a part a president’s track record, the duties of the office are measured by far more than legislative accomplishments. Indeed, Obama’s legislative successes – realized by bargaining and arm twisting that was necessary in spite of the large majorities in both chambers – could be viewed as successes for a party whip or majority leader. But it would be wrong to categorize these as “executive” accomplishments.
When we turn to the executive duties and the challenges facing our President – the war in Afghanistan; the oil spill in the gulf; dealing with the North Korean intransigence; failure to secure the southern border; the decision and then apparent reversal of this decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a New York City federal court; dealing with the other detainees in Guantanamo Bay; and perhaps most importantly, preventing the Iranian regime from developing weapons grade uranium – we find significant reason to question his executive leadership.
In many ways, Obama may wish to imitate the Kennedy style, and certainly they share the trait of charisma. But as Von Driehle writes, charisma may get you elected, but it isn’t going to help you solve problems and effectively execute he law:
Kennedy needed on-the-job training, as he later admitted to a friend: “Presumably, I was going to learn these lessons sometime, and maybe better sooner than later.” Unfortunately, when a President gets an education, we all pay the tuition.
Increasingly it seems that the current occupant of the White House is getting “on the job training” and we are, indeed, paying the price of tuition. Hilary Clinton was right: it is 3 A.M. and the person answering the phone in the White House is not qualified.