Nothing has harmed Barack Obama's candidacy for president more than the perception that he is inexperienced. An August poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that “personal abilities and experience” was the biggest cause for concern by voters about Obama, much more than his stands on issues. Among those who support Obama, but only weakly, 43% were most troubled by Obama's experience. By contrast, only 8% of John McCain supporters were most troubled by his experience.
However, there are two problems with the attack on Obama's inexperience: it isn't true, and it doesn't matter.
Yet a campaign of misinformation has greatly exaggerated Obama's alleged inexperience. Fred Thompson's Sept. 2 speech to the Republican National Convention proclaimed that Obama is “most inexperienced nominee to ever run for President.” The next night, Rudy Giuliani repeated the accusation about Obama: “He is the least experienced candidate for president of the United States in at least the last 100 years.” Giuliani and Thompson seem to be conveniently forgetting that George W. Bush in 2000 had served only six years as governor, far fewer years of experience as an elected public official than Obama's 12 years of experience (eight as state senator, four as US senator). Nor did they seem to care that McCain's Vice Presidential pick, Sarah Palin, has only two years of experience as governor of Alaska.
Obama's experience in state and national politics also exceeds that of Ronald Reagan (eight years as governor), Jimmy Carter (four years in state senate, four years as governor), Dwight Eisenhower (no political experience), and Harry Truman (10 years as US senator, one year as vice president). In fact, Obama's total political experience exceeds Thompson's eight lackluster years as a senator or Giuliani's two terms as mayor of New York City, which they felt made them qualified to be president.
I did a quick study of presidential experience (see the results here) and discovered that out of 42 presidents, only 20 had more experience as an elected public official than Obama does now. Only 22 presidents had more experience than Obama as an elected official in Washington, D.C. In terms of his experience, Obama would be a typical president. Yet you won't find anyone in the media reporting on the fact that Obama has more foreign policy experience than four out of the last five presidents.
However, even if Obama were inexperienced, that would be no reason to vote against him. History shows us that an experienced politician usually makes for a lousy president. In fact, the most consistent variable to predict a failed presidency is experience.
The Wall Street Journal and the right-wing Federalist Society in 2005 surveyed an “ideologically balanced” group of 130 prominent professors to rank the best and worst presidents. Out of the top 10 presidents, ranked as great and near great, only three had more experience as an elected political official (or more experience in Congress) than Obama does now. Out of the five worst presidents ranked as failures, all of them had more experience than Obama.
Of course, not every inexperienced president is a good one. George W. Bush is definitive proof of that. However, experience may also be part of the explanation for Bush's failures. Bush was so inexperienced, particularly on foreign affairs, that he turned to Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to make key decisions. Cheney and Rumsfeld are among the most experienced figures ever to hold their positions, and like the failed presidents of great experience before them, they came up with some of the most disastrous policies in recent memory.
Obama, who has far more experience on foreign affairs than Bush thanks to four years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and visits to 17 countries, is unlikely to be captive to the views of his running mate Joe Biden.
Why does experience harm presidential judgment? One reason is that experienced public officials tends to be set in their ways, and unwilling to challenge the status quo of which they are a part. Politicians with less experience are not tied to the political establishment and are more willing to implement change, which is an essential component of presidential greatness.
That certainly describes the 2008 election. Obama's depth and breadth of experience, both as an elected official and as a citizen committed to public service, far exceeds the norm for a president. It's time to stop talking about experience, and start talking about the issues that matter to the voters.