By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Obama, Palin and experience

For several days now, I’ve been thinking about the notion that Sarah Palin is just as experienced as Barack Obama — or, for that matter, more experienced, since she’s got executive experience and he doesn’t. I find it ludicrous, so it took me a while to wrap my arms around it.

Though “experience” and “qualifications” are being treated in this campaign as though they are the same thing, they are not. Experience is one of the things you look at — an important thing — in deciding whether someone is qualified. But there are other factors, too.

Let’s stipulate that Obama is less experienced than would be ideal, though I would argue that his years in the legislature of a large industrial state is vastly more relevant than Palin’s time running a tiny town, followed by her cup of coffee as governor. Despite Obama’s lack of experience at the national level, few people in public life today have done more serious reading, thinking and speaking about the wide array of national and international issues that will face the next president.

Thus the question with Obama is whether his deep knowledge of the issues, much of it theoretical and academic, will hold up once he gets slapped in the face by reality. It’s a legitimate concern. Ideally Obama would have run in 2012 or 2016. But politics is never ideal, and he took the risk — a smart risk, in my view — that it was better to run before he was as experienced as he ought to be than become just one of the Washington crowd.

Obama’s qualifications are his experience, his knowledge and his judgment. Voters have been probing those three elements for many months now and have gotten to know quite a lot about him.

Then there is Palin, who was thrust upon the nation less than a week ago. Most of Palin’s experience is virtually identical to chairing the board of selectmen in a small New England town. Sorry, but Obama’s years as a community organizer and as a state legislator, and his short time in the U.S. Senate, are vastly more relevant than Palin’s years as mayor and her brief stint as the governor of state with the population of Boston — a state awash in so much oil money that the only question is how to spend it.

So what about the rest of her qualifications? Her knowledge and her judgment? That’s what we’re all trying to find out now. I’ve made it clear that I think she comes up short on both fronts. There is no evidence that she’s ever given more than superficial thought to any national or international issue other than energy, and I’m not sure how her ideas differ from Obama’s except that she wants to drill, drill, drill. And why not? She thinks the views of the vast majority of the world’s atmospheric scientists — that humans are contributing to global warming — are mere opinions with which she is free to agree or disagree. And she disagrees.

Jon Keller, in his commentary on WBZ Radio (AM 1030) this morning, argued that experience is overrated, and that both Palin and Obama have enough. I don’t quite agree, but I agree with him that that’s not how voters will ultimately make up their minds.

People will vote for the Obama-Biden team or the McCain-Palin team on the basis of issues, values and party identification. In the end, experience is just something to talk about.

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  1. Michael Pahre

    You wrote, “I’m not sure how her ideas [on energy] differ from Obama’s except that she wants to drill, drill, drill.”The media haven’t exactly got the story straight yet, but she actually shares a key element with Obama in her energy policy as Governor of Alaska.She has pushed for oil companies to drill for oil using the existing leases that they are not exploiting. That is the energy position of the Democratic leadership, including Obama, but is at odds with the Republican’s leadership who only want to open up new areas for oil exploration.See the L. A. Times story, for example: “Palin not only wants a greater share of what’s left for state coffers, but has also told oil companies they must develop the leases they have or give them up — a challenge to producers who may have been waiting for marginal oil and gas fields to become economical before investing millions more in them.”It will be interesting to see how both sides deal with this confluence of policy.

  2. Steve

    Once one has had enough experience to know where the levers of power are, I’ll take judgment, even temperament and clear-headedness over experience any day.The decision-making cycle of a combat pilot is exactly wrong for the office of president. A combat pilot stays alive by making snap decisions and sticking with them. The same kind of decision cycle in a president will commit us to rash actions, and McCain doesn’t have the kind of make-up to know when he’s wrong, nor the kind of intelligence to make good long-term judgments.Obama’s intelligence and judgment will make him a much better president.

  3. MeTheSheeple

    It’s been pointed out (now by people from both parties) that the current government had some of the most experienced civil servants, such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. The great majority of America is not terribly happy with their performance.The presidential campaign is, in essence, a job search. Figure out what position you’re hiring for and what you like to do; then figure out the candidate that gives you the most confidence he — and the teams he create — can get the job done. That may be experience, charisma, native intelligence, education, history or countless other factors.A key difference for the American voter: You don’t have to work every day with the guy you hire, but you do have to live with his results.

  4. Aaron Read

    People will vote for the Obama-Biden team or the McCain-Palin team on the basis of issues, values and party identification. In the end, experience is just something to talk about.Shame on you, Dan…as a media critic you should be jaded enough to know better. People will vote based on how they feel about a candidate, which is why McCain/Palin will do their damnedest to scare the shit out of everyone in the next sixty days, and try to link that fear to Obama.Here’s my prediction: NPR reported this morning that the Shi’ite-led gov’t of Iraq is shooting itself in the foot (almost literally). If this keeps up, and I’ll bet it will, then Iraq will hit a tipping point and rapidly regress into violence. Now, if this happens before, say, mid-October…you can bet McCain will say that the Iraqis are fighting because they’re afraid Obama will be elected and withdraw the troops in shame and defeat, and that the terrorists will follow us home.You heard it here first! 🙂

  5. jvwalt

    Another key element of “experience”: Obama has been front and center on the national stage for almost a year, and has been running for President for nearly two. He’s taken heat, he’s defended himself, he triumphed in a hard-fought primary. That is a huge amount of relevant political experience, which shows that Obama has a very good idea about how to handle the levers of power and the bully pulpit of the Presidency. Palin has been in the national spotlight for less than a week, and we have no idea how she would perform if thrust into a position of power. And since she was introduced to America last Friday, the McCain campaign has been hiding her. No interviews, no press conferences, no public events except those that are totally controlled. If she’s such a budding political all-star, why is she not out there proving herself?

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