What Does History Foreshadow for Obama Candidacy?

Now that the Presidential field for 2008 is moving ahead at warp speed, it’s time to step back a minute and ask a fundamental question about the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama. Is this simply too much, too soon or will he defy the basic rule of presidential politics about inexperienced candidates often slipping on a big banana peel during the course of a tough national campaign?

Let’s first look at the last six people to be elected president of the United States: Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Three of these men had run for president before (been around the track) and one had significant political experience through holding other offices. Only two, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, were as green as Barack Obama.

Let’s take a quick look at the last six:

Richard Nixon: Prior to being elected in 1968, Nixon had run an unsuccessful but very close race for president as the Republican nominee against John F. Kennedy in 1960. Nixon had also been on the successful presidential ticket as vice president in 1952 and 1956. He clearly understood national campaigns.

Jimmy Carter: He was one of the least experienced politicians in the 20th century to be elected president. Carter had served one term as a state senator in Georgia and one term as Georgia governor. It can be argued that Carter was simply in the right place at the right time….the country wanted someone who didn’t know much about Washington in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Carter’s lack of experience ultimately doomed him to one term.

Ronald Reagan: He had served two terms as the governor of the largest state in the country (California) and had run a very close race for the Republican presidential nomination against Gerald Ford in 1976. Reagan clearly learned a lot from his campaign four years before he was elected in 1980. Though an actor by profession, he was a very experienced politician when he finally was elected president.

George H.W. Bush: He ran a vigorous though ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination against Ronald Reagan in 1980. He then was the successful nominee for vice president in 1980 and 1984. Prior to running for national office, Bush had been chairman of the Republican National Committee, director of the CIA and a Congressman from Texas. By the time Bush was elected president in 1988, he had very significant national campaign experience.

Bill Clinton: Clinton won the presidency in his first try in 1992; however, he had held office as attorney general and governor in his home state of Arkansas for 14 years. Additionally, Clinton had been a major player in national Democratic politics for years serving as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and as a major force in the Democratic Governors Association. Bill Clinton was no political novice but his campaign was almost derailed by unfavorable disclosures at critical moments.

George W. Bush: He is closer to Obama than any of the others except Carter. However, even Bush had more political experience than the first term Senator from Illinois. Bush had twice been elected governor of the second largest state in the country (Texas) and had played an active role in his father’s unsuccessful re-election campaign in 1992. However, his lack of experience in foreign policy ultimately doomed his presidency.

This brings us to Obama who was previously a member of the Illinois State Legislature and is in only his third year as a U.S. Senator. Some people will compare him with another charismatic former Democratic politician, John F. Kennedy. However, even Kennedy had much more national political experience when he was elected president in 1960. Kennedy had served 14 years in Congress (six years in the U.S. House and eight years in the U.S. Senate). Also, he had made an unsuccessful, though close run for the vice presidential nomination in 1956.

Obama certainly has demonstrated appeal as a candidate. As an African American and the youngest candidate in the field so far, Obama represents “change” without saying a word. When speaking, he comes across as relaxed, informed and unscripted. While assets like these are valuable, they may not, however, be enough to offset the exposure and “hard knocks” lessons learned in the real-life political arena.

If Obama is not Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton or George H.W. Bush, who is he? Could he be Gary Hart or Wes Clark – two initially appealing Democratic presidential candidates who flamed out in the course of their campaigns for the nomination?

I am not suggesting that Obama has the womanizing problem that plagued Hart. Hart, who had served in the U.S. Senate longer than Obama when he ran, lost the fight for the nomination to Walter Mondale in 1984 primarily because he was simply too much of an outsider and couldn’t sustain his campaign after initial successes in Iowa and New Hampshire. The party establishment ultimately pulled together to defeat Hart. (Hart’s “monkey business/Donna Rice” scandal did not break until he was gearing up for a run in 1988.)

Wes Clark, of course, had even less political experience than Obama when he ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004. He had a long and distinguished career in the military but had never run for any political office. Clark was not ready for prime time – he could not handle tough questions from the sharks in the media in a coherent way. Also, he got into the race too late and much of the political staff talent needed to run a national campaign had already committed to others. This will not be a problem for Obama.

Obama could benefit from the same type of national mood that boosted Carter to the presidency in 1976. It is certainly possible that the country will be sick and tired of the Republican Party as a result of the Iraq war just as it rejected the Republican Party after Watergate. The public may simply want someone entirely new and different, even if that person is lacking in important national political experience. But it is also possible that the country will want a person with significant foreign policy and national defense experience because of the challenge we face from international terrorism.

Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush are very different people but the memory of the failed presidencies of the inexperienced Carter and Bush may haunt voters when they pick the Democratic nominee in 2008. Maybe Obama is so different that none of the traditional rules of politics apply to him. It will be interesting to watch this particular drama unfold.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Welte and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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