Obama's Other Experience Problem

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OCTOBER 17, 2007

Obama's Other Experience Problem

The Post has a nice piece today about one of the fundamental problems of the Obama campaign--the possibility (likelihood, in my mind) that a message of post-partisan unity and fundamental change won't capture the imaginations of Democrats nursing deep resentments after seven years of Bush. This graf distilled it for me:

Obama offered a similar argument two days later at a Boys and Girls Club in Waterloo, saying that the country was "failed by a president who didn't tell the whole truth" but that it was "also failed" by the rest of the D.C. establishment. But the crowd broke into such loud applause after his charge against Bush that his broader criticism of the Washington system sounded like an afterthought. Similarly, those moments on the trail when he allows himself to take clear shots at Bush--on issues such as torture, military contractors and education funding--tend to win him his loudest cheers.

Obviously, just getting rid of a president who didn't tell the truth would be more than sufficient for a lot of Democrats.

But there's a second problem with this message, which is kind of implicit in these comments from Obama strategist David Axelrod:

"Senator Clinton has enormous negatives, were she to go into a general [election], and the fact that Barack is a good unifier is a good harbinger for the general," he said. But, he added, "voters get sold short. They're smart and sophisticated. They realize that it's important to replace a Republican with a Democrat, but that it won't do enough" if "all we do is change parties without challenging our politics."

On some level, I'm not sure how credible Obama's promise to change (in this case "challenge") our politics is. I personally believe in him--there are times when I hear him speak and think he could do pretty much anything. But when I consult his biography the way an ordinary voter might, I don't see any evidence to suggest he's capable of changing politics in some fundamental way. Yes, he reached across the aisle to pass some bills in Illinois. And he did work as a community organizer n Chicago. But there are probably hundreds (if not thousands) of people who could boast those achievements. Other than that, what is there?

It would be one thing if like, say, John Kerry, Obama had helped lead a movement to end a war. Or if, like Rudy Giuliani, he had some non-traditional, non-Washington experience that was nonetheless pretty extraordinary. (You can quibble about how much credit Giuliani deserves for reviving New York City, but it still sounds pretty impressive.) But if there's nothing that immediately jumps off your resume like that, I'm not sure you can persuade voters it's suddenly going to happen when you get to Washington. Maybe Obama means to suggest that running his campaign is itself experience leading a movement, but I think that's a little too clever.

There's something ironic about all of this: One impetus behind Obama's changing politics theme is to compensate for his perceived lack of experience relative to Hillary Clinton. The message is: People (such as Hillary) with traditional Washington experience are going to keep on doing things the way they've always been done, which hasn't accomplished much for the American people. To get something done, you need to change politics.

Fair enough. But you arguably need more, not less, experience if you want to change politics, albeit a different kind of experience. And it's not obvious from Obama's resume that he has that experience either.

P.S. I'll do a post later today or tomorrow about what I think Obama should have done instead.

--Noam Scheiber

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