Does State Legislative Experience Prepare Obama to be President?

Alan Ehrenhalt, Governing's executive editor, wrote a column for Newsweek last week in which he provocatively argued that in some sense serving in a state ...
by | June 30, 2008

Alan Ehrenhalt, Governing's executive editor, wrote a column for Newsweek last week in which he provocatively argued that in some sense serving in a state legislature is better preparation to be president of the Unites States than serving in the U.S. Senate. Here's the crux of Alan's argument:

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 worst, they are doggedly parochial, people who tend first and foremost to the interests of a relatively small constituency. 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.

Alan's Newsweek column, which was actually a shorter version of a column that will appear in Governing, created a bit of a stir in the blogosphere. After the jump, you can read some of the reactions.

Karl Kurtz of the The National Conference of State Legislatures' blog, the Thicket:

This article resonated with me not only because of my institutional bias toward the value of state legislatures but also because I have often wondered during this campaign about the claims and counter-claims of  "experience" among Senators McCain, Clinton and Obama.  But I want to add a couple of thoughts that elaborate on Ehrenhalt's conclusion about the complexity of determining what constitutes good experience. 

First, I think of an article that Rutgers University Professor Alan Rosenthal wrote a decade ago, "From Gavel to Gown" (State Government News 40, October 1997, pp. 12-13--sorry, no online version available) in which he argued that legislative leaders make good university presidents.  He cited examples of former legislators William Bulger (University of Massachusetts), David Frohnmayer (University of Oregon), Sandy d'Alemberte (Florida State University), and Betty Castor (University of Southern Florida) who at that time were successful university presidents.  But Rosenthal's point is that it is the legislative leadership experience of setting agendas, corralling multiple, competing, independent actors and negotiating differences that counts, not just service in the legislature.

James Joyner of Outside the Beltway:

There's something to this, to be sure. Then again, as Ehrenhalt admits, state legislator is a part-time gig. Obama was of counsel to his law firm, doing community activism, and sitting on a host of corporate and professional boards during his time in the state senate. So, it's not as if he had his nose to the grindstone for eight years.

Further, there are only 59 members of the Illinois State Senate, as compared to 100 U.S. Senators. And the former lacks the latter's professional staffing. So how is it that these guys avoid "flitting from issue to issue"? Wouldn't it be easier to develop genuine expertise with a staff and fewer committee assignments?

And, even if we're to believe that a year in a state legislature is roughly equal to a year in the Senate, Obama has eight years plus his four in the senate, so 12 years total. John McCain has been in Congress since 1981. And he was a Navy officer for twenty-seven years before that. Doesn't McCain still come out ahead in the "experience" game, no matter how you slice it? 

D.S. Hube of Newsbusters:

Ehrenhalt isn't "urging anyone to vote for Obama, or against McCain;" he just spent an entire article pointing out how Obama was an incredibly dedicated public servant in Illinois, and how he accumulated in-depth knowledge of the issues. In contrast, the only positive thing noted about the U.S. Senate (i.e. John McCain), out of myriad denigrating statements, was that a few senators may develop "an encyclopedic knowledge of topics that interest them" (but these "are the minority").

Ehrenhalt's [not so] clever attempts at even-handedness ("Well, not exactly;" "Maybe it does;" "I'm not saying no; I'm saying I don't know," etc.) essentially make his entire column moot. But its message is as clear as its previous Newsweek Barack-embracing screeds.

Richard Holcomb of The Sensible Center:

Obama's experience was evident last week in his very thoughtful, well received speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors on urban policy, in which he urged that urban issues be addressed from a metropolitan area perspective. He also avoided promising a lot of new Federal aid to the cities, because the money is simply not there. Many believe that Sandra Day O'Connor's experience as an elected official contributed much to her pragmatic approach to issues on the Supreme Court, and pragmatism is one of our favorite words here at the Center.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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