Are You Experienced?
You may have noticed that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have recently escalated their rhetoric over which candidate has the most experience to be president. A recent piece by Michael Kinsley at Slate also considers this issue. My sense is that experience is somewhat overrated as a candidate selling point. I am reminded of a piece by political scientist Paul Quirk, dealing with the issue of presidential competence (chapter 5 in this volume). Quirk essentially argues that new presidents need only grasp three experiential concepts, beyond which (I would argue) appeals to prior professional experience do not bring much additional value.
First, a new president needs a basic grasp of the design and functioning of the Executive Branch. Since he is charged with setting the nation’s policy agenda, a president should have a sense of how the process works from policy formulation through to final implementation. Second, a president must appreciate the value of liaison activities with the other branches of government, particularly Congress. A president will not be implementing much policy, if he is unable to marshal support from other political elites in the policy-making environment. Finally, since public opinion is such a powerful tool for achieving one’s policy objectives, a president should be able to sell his agenda to a broader audience. Any president will have a wealth of well-schooled advisors in each of these three areas, so a basic familiarity is really all that is required.
My guess is that both Clinton and Obama clear this threshold for experience, making the issue a somewhat overplayed bone of contention between the two candidates. While sniping between the campaigns will no doubt continue, it appears that Obama, at least, is looking to move on to a more promising line of attack.
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