Three years ago, a majority of American voters were in thrall to the electrifying personage of Sen. Barack Obama - or at least, his visage on our TV screens or behind a podium, in front of which swooned swarms of worshipers. Chris Matthews said it for the entire commentariat; when he described the "thrill running up his leg" at Obama's appearance, it sounded for all the world like a teenager sounding off upon meeting the Beatles. Mr. Obama can count himself lucky that he wasn't deluged under a pile of thrown panties.
My, how things change! Today, even the left is sullenly admitting that President Obama doesn't know what he's doing; that they were blinded by his oratory and by their own hopes for what could be.
The warnings were there, of course. If they'd been reading Scragged, to say nothing of listening to Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh, they'd have known about Obama's terrorist friends, his Marxist economics, his views against American exceptionalism and in favor of world citizenship, not to mention his utter lack of leadership experience. But they refused to even look, and now it's too late.
In an effort to avoid making the same mistake again, while not getting too bogged down in the specifics of any one candidate, let's talk about what we should be looking for in a President - not as a politician, or even on a policy basis, but as a person.
Every politician likes to cite experience as a reason for your vote; but not all experience is the same. Joe Biden was in the Senate almost since the Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower, yet the idea of him as President impels derisive laughter. Hugh Hefner has started a highly successful global company from scratch, but somehow we think that his experience would not count for much in the voting booth.
Experience is important though; newcomers to leadership don't do well in the Oval Office, as Mr. Obama has amply demonstrated times without number. What sort of experience should America be looking for in a president?
The obvious form of presidential experience is serving in the military; most, though not all, of our Presidents have served in uniform and some in very high ranks. Since the President is Commander-in-Chief, it's useful for him to have some idea what that entails. As Mr. Colin Powell, then Secretary of State said, "It's hard when you give orders and your friends come home in body bags."
However, the link to the military isn't entirely positive. George Washington was a fantastic President and a fantastic general. Abraham Lincoln served in his local militia for a few weeks in 1832, accomplishing nothing whatsoever of note, yet as President he did just fine. U.S. Grant was one of our finest generals, but when he got to the White House he did terribly.
John F. Kennedy was a legitimate war hero and a great orator, but a poor president who nearly got us into WW III. Franklin Roosevelt had no military experience at all save a bureaucratic political position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but nobody questions his competence as Commander in Chief during WWII. Go down the list, and there's no clear correlation.
In fact, you can make an argument that being a high-ranking military officer is bad preparation for the Presidency. If you're a general, you can bark out an order to Do Something and have every confidence that Something Will Get Done. In extreme situations, a general can shoot down a disobedient subordinate where he stands.
Nothing could be more unlike the Presidency. Presidents have power, sure, but they don't have anything like the ability to compel obedience that a general does. Save for the top couple hundred political appointees, the President can't even fire the thousands of bureaucrats in his own executive branch.
General Eisenhower, both a successful general and a successful President, is a superb example. Yes, Ike was Supreme Allied Commander - but notice that word "Allied." He couldn't just order British Field Marshal Montgomery around the way he could the American general Patton, much less French General Charles de Gaulle; they answered to a political hierarchy as different from the American hierarchy as Democrats differ from Republicans and Libertarians, perhaps more.
For every decision, Ike had to weigh not merely the military need but also the different political needs and objectives of his allies, relations with the partisans behind enemy lines, morale of the civilians at home, in England, and in occupied France, and a host of other factors, while still trying to defeat an enormously powerful enemy that posed an existential threat. Somewhat uniquely, Eisenhower's generalship was the ideal preparation for the Presidency of a free democracy. Only George Washington faced a comparable experience of being a politician and military commander at the same time.
So is military service irrelevant when picking a president? No, but what matters is not the rank.
What's important is one simple fact: a candidate who, in earlier life, volunteered to put on America's uniform has personally demonstrated willingness to risk his own life in the defense of his country. Nobody starts as a general; Kennedy was a Navy lieutenant who came perilously close to being killed just like any other nobody in the war despite his family's wealth. His older brother actually was killed in the same war. That says something good about his personal character and patriotism - something well worth knowing when picking a Commander in Chief.
Calvin Coolidge said long ago that "The business of America is business," so it seems commonsensical to want a President with some understanding of what it's like to run one. We bemoan the complete absence of any serious business experience inside the Obama administration.
Yet when we look back through history, not one single President was previously the head of a giant corporation. Several have tried - Ross Perot and Donald Trump come to mind - but they've not gotten far. The closest we've come was Vice President Dick Cheney, ex-CEO of Halliburton, but he was never President and didn't really want to be.
So Presidents aren't businessmen? Far from it; almost all have been, but always small businessmen. Abraham Lincoln was a partner in a general store which went bust. Harry Truman owned an unsuccessful hat shop. Jimmy Carter became wealthy as a peanut farmer, though it must be said that a fair amount of his revenue came from government subsidies which needed lubrication from the political process.
Why does this matter? Being a small businessman is completely different from being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. A CEO almost never meets real, ordinary customers or worries about where the next payroll is coming from. He spends his time on Wall Street with other rich people, talking in millions or billions of dollars.
Nor does a CEO have to worry about business-destroying regulations; when he picks up the phone, the Senator at the other end listens to him. A really deadly regulation will be squashed, or more likely, artfully amended to give him a free pass and kneecap his smaller competitors. He doesn't have to worry about the myriad of labor laws; he has an entire department of highly-paid experts and lawyers to take care of that for him, and another department to legally avoid taxes whilst muddying the water enough that even antagonistic investigative reporters can't figure out what was actually paid.
A small businessman, in contrast, must suffer the full force of egregious taxes and burdensome red tape without any help from on high. A small business can be instantly shut down and bankrupted on any given day by a wayward bureaucrat with an axe to grind, or even a busybody neighbor; it happens every day. A small businessman will from time to time lie awake Thursday night wondering how he is going to make Friday's payroll. A small businessman most definitely knows and understands ordinary Americans; he has to, they're his customers and he sees them every day.
Again, it doesn't matter whether the candidate made it as a small businessman; in fact, failure is good preparation for being President. Simply by operating a small business, you become a better person and a better leader because you've been forced to face many essential facts about economics, life, government, America, and Americans that other pursuits don't expose you to. Mr. Wall St. Bigshot in his Gulfstream is as insulated from middle America as the Queen of England.
If there's one type of experience most political candidates love to tout, it's past political positions. No doubt this is helpful to voters because almost every veteran politician has a voting record that tells us what they'll probably do if we put him or her in higher office.
Does the experience of government itself contribute to a successful Presidency? Barack Obama has done nothing but government and academia his entire life, and the results speak for themselves.
On the other hand, Bill Clinton didn't have academic experience; his life truly was nothing but politics from the day he started his career. Whatever you may think of his character, his was a long way from the bottom rank of presidencies.
What's the difference? The type of political experience: Bill Clinton was Governor of Arkansas, which means he was The Man, The Big Cheese, Mr. Buck-Stops-Here, The Decider, The LIghtning Rod, and so on. Not only did he have power, he had direct responsibility and accountability for the outcomes of his decisions.
In other words, he learned by sad experience and the occasional electoral defeat that, no matter what, he had to give the voters what they wanted. Most of the time, that means "It's the economy, stupid!" Everything else, especially economically-devastating leftist ideology, had to take a back seat.
Compare this to Barack Obama who never held a position of responsibility until he sat down in the Oval Office. A Senator is just one of 100; a state senator, much the same. Even a professor doesn't bear responsibility for actual student learning, he gets points merely for showing up on time and talking.
As a result, we see a President who is so married to his leftism that the fact it's totally and blatantly failing means nothing; he blithely sails on bumping into icebergs, ignoring the shrieks of the public and the increasingly loud gurgle from belowdecks. No President should do this, ever, but professors and Senators can be oblivious to reality and do it all the time.
To sum up: Experience in government is important, but only executive experience - a governor, or perhaps mayor of a very large city. Anything else is not comparable and probably not even helpful.
We've talked about good life experiences that you'd want a President to have, but we haven't discussed experiences that are actually bad for a would-be President. We'll look at those in the next article in this series.