Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Oh Bama

I know all of you are waiting with baited breath for the maven’s endorsement in the Democratic Party race for the presidential nomination. Well, you better restart the old inhale-exhale routine, ‘cause I ain’t gonna change my previous endorsement of Bill Richardson. Now that the Governor is out of the race, I will endorse nobody. (My endorsement seems to be the kiss of death, so I’m not sure either of the remaining candidates really wants it.) However, I will continue my on-line debate with myself over who will make the best president.

I spend some of my spare time tutoring in Richmond Public Schools as part of the Micah Initiative. Somehow, I got into a political discussion Monday with some fifth graders, all of whom were African Americans. They each urged me to vote for Senator Barack Obama so that we could have our first black president. I tried to explain to them, without much success, that I would vote for the best qualified person, and that I didn’t care whether that person was black or white, male or female. Paraphrasing Martin Luther King, Jr., I urged them to judge people by their character not by the color of their skin. As I said in my piece about Hillary Clinton Monday, I will not vote for or against her because she is a woman. Likewise, I will not vote for or against Senator Obama because of the color of his skin.

So, let’s not beat around the bush (no pun intended). Let’s get straight to the experience issue because that is the one that concerns me. As I indicated Monday, I don’t buy this argument by Senator Clinton that she has “thirty five years” experience and that therefore she will “hit the ground running” on January 20 of next year. However, I am a bit concerned that up until the Democratic convention in 2004 I had never even heard of Barack Obama. His government experience before then was in the Illinois Senate. In 2005, only about three years ago, he began his term in the United States Senate. So, how much government experience is necessary before a person is qualified to be president?

When the media and some of Barack’s opponents raised the experience issue earlier in the campaign, I immediately thought of Abraham Lincoln. Under the standards being applied to Senator Obama, Lincoln was not qualified to be president. Before running for president in 1860, Lincoln had held only two government positions—four terms in the Illinois legislature and a single term in the United States House of Representatives. And, I am sure that most of the country had never heard of him before the 1860 Republican Convention. Each of Lincoln’s opponents in the election—Stephen Douglas, John Breckenridge and John Bell—had more experience in the Federal Government than did Lincoln. Yet Abraham Lincoln is consistently judged as one of our best presidents.*

(I wrote the stuff above before I knew the results of the primary elections in the Commonwealth, Maryland and the District of Columbia).

Those of you with a phenomenal memory are aware that last summer I opined that being a member of a legislature, whether state or federal, does not provide a person with the type of experience that prepare him/her for being president. ( I stated then that being a legislator does not develop the executive and managerial skills that a president needs.

It is apparent to me, however, that, unless Mike Huckabee pulls off a miracle of biblical proportions, our next president will be a person with only legislative—not executive or managerial—experience. This year, for only the third time since the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, we will be electing an incumbent United States Senator to be our President.

I have been thinking long and hard on this issue of experience. Perhaps the truth is that there is no amount or type of previous experience that will adequately prepare someone to be President of the United States. When the inauguration parties are over next January and the next president sits down alone in the Oval Office, I imagine that s/he will be swept by a feeling of inadequacy. This job is so big and so difficult that even I would feel inadequate, and I am a trained maven. I don’t think that anyone watching presidents from the Capitol across town or even close up as a spouse or White House staffer can ever know what it is like to be president (except, of course, for those of us who watched “The West Wing” for years.) I think that even a vice president isn’t necessarily better qualified to be president for having served in the number two position. It is hard to say, for example, that either Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson was a better president because he served as vice president before fate elevated him to the White House. (I think that the voters know that too. Since 1960, only one of four vice presidents who sought to succeed to the presidency won the election).

So, does Hillary Clinton’s seven years in the Senate make her more qualified to be president than Barack Obama’s three years in the Senate? This maven is not ready to say so. I think that either of them will have to spend a great deal of time learning should s/he be elected. Nobody is going to “hit the ground running.” Hopefully, history will be kind to whoever is elected our next president and the mistakes s/he makes during those first few months in office will be minor ones.

But wait, maven. You didn’t say who you voted for on Tuesday.

Dear reader, in this country we have a secret ballot. Who I, or any other person, vote for is nobody else’s business. That’s why there is a curtain you can close when you walk into the voting booth (or at least there used to be). But, I will say that I did not vote for Bill Richardson.

* This judgment is one of hindsight. We know that the North won the Civil War and we give Lincoln credit for preserving the Union. However, Lincoln was not so popular during his presidency. In fact, the public’s opinion of Lincoln’s performance during the first year and a half of his presidency was so low that had he run for reelection in May or June of 1863, rather than in November 1864, there is a strong chance that he would have been defeated.


Paul Hammond said...

I think the comparison of Obama and Lincoln is a rather thin one. I've heard it before. They are rather striking coincidences. Only history can prove how accurate they are. Lincoln's presidency was a near disaster and can be compared in some ways to GWB's. He brought us into war with the expectation of quick victory, trusted his generals with disasterous results, suspended the Bill of Rights, and pulled the fat out of the fire by turning things over to a general who knew how to fight a war. Don't get me wrong, nobody will be comparing GWB to AL in any other way.

BTW, I applaud your choice and reasoning. I do not blame the 5th grade children for their enthusiasm. They are at the bottom of the totem pole for reasons that have nothing to do with them. If Obama could heal the racial divide I would vote for him in a heartbeat. I have yet to see him speak the hard truths that would make this possible.

RVA Foodie said...

I've added this post as a link in my pre-VA primary breakdown and post-reaction. The debate continues on and I applaud your continued objectivity. Hopefully, we'll push each other and the candidates to articulate a clarified job description for the presidency.