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Beyond the presidential résumé

Modern presidential history shows that experience does not guarantee policy success.

December 13, 2007



Does Barack Obama have enough experience to be president? Does Hillary Clinton? That's a major point of debate in the white-hot race between these Democratic front-runners. History, however, shows experience is of mixed value, especially in national security and foreign policy.

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Presidential candidates typically come with qualifications in domestic governance. They've led a state or legislated in Congress. If there's a hole in their résumés, it's on the foreign side.

That's perhaps why Senator Clinton touts meeting world leaders as first lady and her Senate experience, while Senator Obama points to his experience of a childhood in Indonesia and relatives in Kenya, as well as overseas trips as a lawmaker. (Interestingly, Republican front-runners are sparring less over such experience than over values, character, and illegal immigrants.)

In recent history, the presidency of Bush No. 1, George Herbert Walker, lends strength to the argument that foreign qualifications lead to successful foreign policy.

Before becoming president, the senior Bush was also vice president, Central Intelligence Agency chief, ambassador to the UN and China, and a congressman. He was equipped to handle the diplomatic earthquake triggered by the fall of the iron curtain. And after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, he led the world to roll it back.

Bush No. 2, George W., was short on foreign and national security experience. He did, however, surround himself with seasoned advisers who helped him oust the Taliban in Afghanistan and prevent another 9/11-style attack on the US. But faulty intelligence, poor execution, and other factors trumped experience and skepticism vis-a-vis Iraq – and the US now finds itself bogged down there.

An experienced team (if not a president) doesn't necessarily guarantee global adroitness. But neither does a lack of experience guarantee disaster, as the example of Harry Truman proves.

Truman was Franklin Roosevelt's freshly minted vice president when his boss died in April 1945. Truman had been a US senator, but his background didn't hint that he could end the war in the Pacific, rescue Europe with the Marshall Plan, or contain the Soviet Union in a way that later helped force its collapse. Good judgment and decisiveness made up for weak foreign credentials.

Roosevelt's past as New York's governor helped him pull the country together during the Depression, which then enabled him to lead the war effort. But for Jimmy Carter, being Georgia's governor proved insufficient to equip him to lead during two oil crises and the Iran hostage crisis, though he helped secure Israel-Egypt détente.

Not enough time in office or too much time – it depends on what a candidate makes of those years. Voters should concern themselves less with the bullet points on a candidate's curriculum vitae, and try to perceive a candidate's judgment, temperament, and intelligence.

Americans might consider their own work résumés. Isn't their purpose to show employers a record of responsibility, care, and wisdom?

Voters are a president's employers. They know experience counts. How much it counts, however, should be weighed by what a candidate has made of it, and how it has made a candidate.

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