First Lady or World Man?

What experience is most valuable in a presidential candidate?

Hillary Clinton declared the other day—apropos of whom, she didn’t say, or need to—”We can’t afford on-the-job training for our next president.” Barack Obama immediately retorted, “My understanding is that she wasn’t treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. I don’t know exactly what experience she’s claiming.” As wit, that round goes to Obama. Clinton was elected to the Senate in 2000, and that was her first experience in public office. Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004 and was an Illinois state senator for seven years before that. In terms of experience in elected office, this seems to be about a wash.

But, since she brought it up, how important is experience in a presidential candidate? If experience were a matter of offices held, however briefly, then the best candidate currently running would be Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and former so many different things that you can hardly believe this is the same person popping up again. But that is ticket-punching, not experience.

With her “on-the-job training” jab, Clinton was clearly referring to work experience. But there is also life experience. Being First Lady is sort of half job and half life, but good experience in either case.

She has to be careful about making a lot of this. Many people resent her for using her position as First Lady to take what they see as a shortcut to elected office. More profoundly, some people see her as having used her marriage as a shortcut to feminism. And the specter of dynasty hangs unattractively over her presidential ambitions. In an odd way, the deep unpopularity of George W. Bush has hurt Hillary Clinton, as people think: “Enough with relatives, already.”

But in fact, being the president’s spouse has got to be very helpful for a future president. It’s like an eight-year “Take Your Daughter to Work” Day. Laura Bush, as far as we know, has made no important policy decisions during her husband’s presidency, but she has witnessed many, and must have a better understanding of how the presidency works than all but half a dozen people in the world. One of those half dozen is Hillary Clinton, who saw it all—well, she apparently missed one key moment—and shared in all the big decisions. Every first lady is promoted as her husband’s key adviser, closest confidant, blah blah blah, but in the case of the Clintons, it seems to be true. Pillow talk is good experience.

Obama also has valuable experience apart from elected office, and he also has to be careful about how he uses it. That is his experience as a black man in America, and also his experience as what you might call a “world man”—Kenyan father, American mother, four formative years living in Indonesia, more years in the ethnic stew of Hawaii, middle name of Hussein, and so on—in an increasingly globalized world. Our current president had barely been outside the country when elected. His efforts to make up for this through repeated proclamations of palship with every foreign leader who parades through Washington have been an embarrassment. Obama’s interesting upbringing would serve us well if he were president, both in terms of the understanding he would bring to issues of America’s role in the world (the term “foreign policy” sounds increasingly anachronistic), and in terms of how the world views America. Hillary Clinton mocks Obama’s claims that four years growing up in Indonesia constitute useful world-affairs experience. But they do.

On the Republican side, the candidate of life experience is John McCain. His five and a half years as a prisoner of war, and his heroic behavior during that time, don’t necessarily make him an expert on world affairs, as he sometimes seems to imply. But they do give him a head start in moral authority, which the next president will need. 

As for experience of the more conventional sort, almost every presidential campaign features two basic arguments. Senators, or former senators, accuse governors, or former governors, of not having enough experience with foreign policy. And governors or former governors (or this year, possibly, a former mayor) accuse senators or former senators of never having run anything larger than a Senate office.

The governors have the better case. Running even a small state government resembles being president more than holding hearings and issuing press releases or even passing the occasional resolution. And that’s about all that a Senator can do, ever since Congress more or less ceded dictatorial power in foreign policy to the president.

My candidate, at least at the moment, is Obama. When I hear him discussing some issue, I hear intelligence and reflection and almost a joy in thinking it through. (OK, OK, not all issues. He obviously gets no joy over driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.) That willingness, even eagerness, to figure things out seems to me more valuable than any amount of experience in allowing issues to wash over you as they do our incumbent president. 

Warren Buffett likes to say, when people tell him they’ve learned from experience, that the trick is to learn from other people’s experience. George W. Bush will leave behind a rich compost heap of experience for his successor to sort through and learn from.