Barack Obama, the experience candidate?

One longtime political hand says Obama's time in the Illinois Legislature has more value than many think, and that "experience" is a subjective measure anyway.

Published June 24, 2008 2:42PM (EDT)

By now, we're all familiar with one of the main knocks against Barack Obama: He lacks experience, the charge goes. But in the latest issue of Newsweek, Alan Ehrenhalt argues that Obama's eight years in the Illinois Senate is worth more than people have given him credit for and, moreover, that it's hard to truly measure "experience" anyway.

Ehrenhalt, who has been around politics for some time now -- he has been the executive editor of Governing magazine since 1991, and before that was at Congressional Quarterly for almost 20 years -- doesn't try to compare Obama's experience with John McCain's and argue in favor of one or the other. Instead, he writes:

Twenty-first century U.S. senators are, virtually by the nature of the job, gadflies. They flit from one issue to another, generally developing little expertise on any of them; devote a large portion of their day to press conferences and other publicity opportunities; follow a daily schedule printed on a 3x5 card that a member of their staff has prepared; depend even more heavily on staff for detailed and time-consuming legislative negotiation that they are too busy to attend; and develop few close relationships with colleagues, nearly all of whom are as busy as they are ...

By contrast, what do state legislators do? ... At their best, they keep all the state's significant issues in mind; it is possible to do that in a state legislature in a way that is not possible in Washington. During the years that Obama served in Springfield, 1997-2005, he was forced to wrestle with the minutiae of health-care policy, utility deregulation, transportation funding, school aid, and a host of other issues that are vitally important to America's coming years, but that U.S. senators are usually able to dispose of with a quick once-over. State legislators have to do this largely on their own, without ubiquitous staff guidance ... And perhaps most important, there is simply more personal contact across the aisle than there is in Congress ...

For a smart, curious and hard-working young legislator -- for a Barack Obama in the Illinois Senate -- can we be so sure that the skill set picked up over eight years in a state Capitol is inferior as presidential preparation to two decades in the pompous, cordoned-off environment of the U.S. Senate? I seriously doubt it ... What I am suggesting is that experience itself is a slippery commodity to measure -- that there is no easy way to guess what sort of political career is ideal for a president -- and that we would all be better off just listening to what the candidates say and how they say it, and spending a little time looking into what sort of people they are.

It's really a very interesting argument, and one I have some immediate sympathy for (interviewing members of Congress on topics about which they are supposedly passionate is not an experience that provokes much confidence in our federal government). Unfortunately, an article like this is likely to have little power to influence voters, but at the very least, it's a line of thinking that political observers and commentators should keep in mind as the inevitable discussions of experience pop up again this summer and fall.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz.