While following the presidential campaign lately, I’ve heard or read many speculations on the subject of the candidates’ experience. It seems that neither Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama nor Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has nearly enough political experience, according to their respective oppositions (though backers of each seem perfectly satisfied with their experience levels).
Moreover, Obama, Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden are criticized for not having executive experience, having spent most of their political careers in legislative roles. And Palin has come under fire for not having any foreign policy experience whatsoever. (Her defenders have responded by pointing out that Alaska, the state she serves as governor, shares a border with Russia. As if she was attending annual summits with Vladimir Putin or something.)!@!
Now, I realize much of this rhetoric is disingenuous, designed not so much to start a serious discussion about what specific experience presidential candidates should have as it is to undermine particular candidacies. (Let’s face it, no candidate’s depth or range of experience will ever be acknowledged as acceptable by political opponents, who will work incredibly hard to exploit any perceived weaknesses.)
But let’s put that aside and honestly look at the question: What experience should we look for in a President? Well, if you examine the history of the United States Presidency, a couple of themes begin to emerge:
1. Some of the best-remembered presidents did not have a great deal of noteworthy experience.
2. Some of the worst-remembered presidents had considerable experience.
To the first point, Andrew Jackson served as a legislator at the federal level at various times for a total of less than four years (and resigned from the U.S. Senate twice) prior to being elected President in 1828. Abraham Lincoln had a brief and relatively undistinguished career as a member of the House of Representatives during the 1850s, and actually lost a Senate election right before he was chosen as the GOP presidential nominee in 1860. Woodrow Wilson had been governor of New Jersey – his only political office up to that point – for two years before he was elected President in 1912.
On the other hand, Franklin Pierce served for a decade in both the House and Senate and was a general in the Mexican-American War, but was unable to prevent the country from careening toward the Civil War. Andrew Johnson, one of two presidents who suffered the ignominy of impeachment, had been a Congressman, Senator, Governor of Tennessee and Vice President before he took over following Lincoln’s assassination. And few Presidents had more experience than Richard Nixon.
Another point to consider is that no amount of experience will necessarily prepare someone for the challenges of the Presidency. All sorts of crises – war, economic troubles, political scandals – can emerge. You can bet that no matter what they’ve been through already, U.S. Presidents will have to deal with things they aren’t prepared for.
None of this is to say that experience isn’t important. It is. But we can assume that anyone who has risen to the level of presidential candidate for either party has a reasonable amount of experience, broadly speaking. The best we can hope for from any President (or any leader at all who has a great deal of power and influence) is that they’re able to learn anything they don’t know on the job, and that any errors they make aren’t too costly. As experts in employee development, we know that’s where most of the learning happens.