Monday, December 3, 2007

Obama and Experience

It took me a while to get off the fence, but Obama's Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech finally closed the deal for me. I'm on board with Barack. Here is the speech in its entirety:

I'm sure I'll make a case for Obama irregularly, infrequently and erratically in the weeks ahead. Where I want to start is by addressing what is perceived to be his biggest weakness: that he is inexperienced.

If Barack Obama becomes President in January 2009 he will have spent 12 years in elective office. I have to suspect that a longer experience than that might actually be detrimental.

Perhaps it's that Obama spent 8 years as a State Senator, and the Illinois State Senate is seen as a sort of minor league. Was he not seeing major league fastballs over there? Illinois is a pretty big state... if it were a country, its GDP would be bigger than Sweden's.

Perhaps the craft of drafting legislation is easier in the Illinois Senate than in the U.S. Senate? I can't imagine so. Are alliances and compromises easier to come by in Illinois, where perhaps politicians are not risk-averse, not particularly ambitious, and are unswayed by lobbyists? Again, I don't think so. If anything, from what I hear politics in Illinois -- and particularly in Chicago where Obama is from -- is hairier than what it is in most other places.

Perhaps we look to experience not to sharpen political skills (which Obama seems to have aplenty) but to give a candidate familiarity with the issues. There is overlap, but state issues are often different than federal issues. States don't deal with foreign policy, immigration, and a spate of other areas. If this is true and an important consideration, it should cut against the Governors and Mayors in the race more than it cuts against Obama, who after all would arrive to his inauguration with four years as a U.S. Senator as well.

Obama was ridiculed by the Clinton camp for citing living overseas as a child as a foreign policy qualification. Others may scoff, but as one who grew up overseas, I will not. A child under ten sucks up culture like a sponge. As wonderful as it is for Chris Dodd, for instance, to have been a Peace Corp volunteer in the Dominican Republic in his youth, the experience of being a child in a different culture is far more potent than that. One who experiences that will always have an eye for cultural difference and an ear for human commonality. He will have a firm foothold on the rest of the world.

Obama continued his multicultural upbringing in Hawaii, a cultural petri dish if ever there was one. As a young man, he would live in Los Angeles and New York before settling in Chicago, where he became a community organizer. Reading his fine memoir, Dreams of My Father, you realize what a political training ground that must have been: trying to reconcile the disparate agendas of radical black Muslims with conservative Christian churchgoers, and finding common ground between them. You see him learning to lead from behind, giving people the tools to succeed on their own rather than trying to hog the spotlight.

From there Obama goes to Harvard Law School, where he was the first African-American to be President of the Harvard Law Review. This is a political as well as intellectual achievement. Tellingly, his victory in the voting came from his ability to listen to the concerns of the conservative faction.

Out of Harvard, he could have gone to New York and instantly be earning a 6-figure income at any white shoe firm he chose. He could have gone to Washington and clerked for a Supreme Court judge, as is traditional for a President of the Law Review. Instead he went right back to community organizing. Eventually, he also taught constitutional law.

The first African-American President would come to office far better equipped for his duties than the President who freed blacks from slavery. After all, Abraham Lincoln only served for two years in the House of Representatives. Luckily, that was enough experience to bring change.

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