The Experience Factor

Obamamania seems to be the political flavor of the month. Illinois freshman Sen. Barack Obama drew crowds of 3,000 in New Hampshire — more than candidates usually pull in the last weekend before the primary. He has appeared not only on “Meet the Press” but also on “Monday Night Football.” His announcement that he was thinking about running for president seems to have prompted Hillary Rodham Clinton’s moves to kick her candidacy into gear.

Pollster Scott Rasmussen shows him getting 17 percent of the primary vote to Clinton’s 34 percent, with no other candidate in double digits. Rasmussen has Obama getting favorable ratings from 52 percent of all voters, 2 percent more than Clinton, and unfavorable ratings from 33 percent, 15 percent less. All this for a man who was almost totally unknown to voters when he stood up in July 2004 to deliver the keynote at the Democratic National Convention.

 You only have to watch the video of that speech again to realize why Obama has impressed so many Americans.

There is clearly a demand in the political marketplace for candidates who can rise above the bitter partisanship that has dominated our politics since Bill Clinton took office in 1993. That partisanship has been bitter in part because Clinton and George W. Bush — both born in the leadoff baby boom year of 1946 — happen to have personal characteristics that Americans on opposite sides of the cultural divide absolutely loathe. And it has been bitter because the demographic factor most highly correlated with voting behavior is religion and degree of religious devotion — which is to say, people with deeply held moral views. Too many people have come to regard the views of the other side as not only wrong, but evil.

 Obama, by emphasizing what Americans of differing views have in common, invites us to an era of less bitter partisanship. His own background — mother from Kansas, father from Kenya, childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, education at Columbia and Harvard Law — seems to span the breadth of American experience. He is clearly smart and carries himself with an attractive grace.

But does all that really qualify him to be president?

 It is a question Obama seems to be grappling with himself. If the complaint about George W. Bush is that he hasn’t worked aggressively and shrewdly enough to get the desired results on the ground in Iraq (and New Orleans), then voters will be looking for a candidate who seems able to do so.

Several candidates of both parties can claim they are.

Rudolph Giuliani cut crime and welfare dependency by more than 50 percent in New York City, and then performed astonishingly well on Sept. 11. John McCain has taken the leadership role on all manner of issues in the Senate and has gotten results. Mitt Romney made millions as an investor, rescued the Utah Olympics and pushed a universal healthcare program through in Massachusetts.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has experience working and achieving results in the White House. Al Gore made serious contributions to governance in Congress and in the White House. Obama’s resume includes one executive position: He directed Illinois Project Vote! in 1992. Two, if you count his presidency of the Harvard Law Review. He’s been a law professor at the University of Chicago since 1993 and served in the Illinois Senate from 1996 to 2004, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

 Imagine a race between Rudy Giuliani and Barack Obama. Giuliani has centrist positions on some issues, while Obama has a voting record well on the left in the Senate. Giuliani has some interesting and novel things to say about issues; Obama can surely make good arguments for his stands, but they don’t seem likely to be very interesting — certainly not as interesting as, say, Bill Clinton’s discussion of issues in 1992. And Giuliani can argue that he knows how to handle crises and how to get results from massive bureaucracies and uniformed forces.

Obama can say that he has that ability, too, and perhaps he does. But we have no way of knowing for sure. Obama has the ability to be a strong candidate. But it’s not clear, perhaps not even to himself, whether he has the capacity to be a strong and effective president.