Experience Matters!
Or Does It?
...and what of osmosis?


By Michael Oliva
December 31st, 2007

There has been a great deal of discourse of late about the difference between the experience of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and how much it matters in terms of their preparedness for the U.S. Presidency. 

In his December 18th New York Times Op-Ed "The Obama-Clinton Issue"
David Brooks writes, "If Clinton were running against Obama for Senate, it would be easy to choose between them.”  The easy choice he refers to is Clinton.  He continues, “But they are running for president, and the presidency requires a different set of qualities. Presidents are buffeted by sycophancy, criticism and betrayal. They must improvise amid a thousand fluid crises. They're isolated and also exposed, puffed up on the outside and hollowed out within. With the presidency, character and self-knowledge matter more than even experience."

Whether or not Obama has more "character and self knowledge" than Clinton is debatable.  We do not personally traverse the inner dwellings of their minds, so judging their respective levels of self knowledge should prove extremely difficult.  Brooks seems to think Obama is the richer of the two in this area.  I will leave you to your own assessments.  The more important question is whether or not he is right in terms of what attributes are the most essential to becoming an effective executive and leader in the job of being president.

I have heard comparisons made between Mr. Obama and Abraham Lincoln, two men who at the time they decided to run for president had served in Congress (Senate and House respectively) for a term or less.  In the case of the latter it was a mere 2 year term (Obama is in the 2nd year of a 6 year term).  Lincoln advanced to the presidency, and despite his lack of elected experience, went on to become one of the most effective leaders in American history. 
At the 1860 Republican convention Lincoln competed against William H. Seward, who, like Clinton now, was a U.S. Senator from the State of New York and the symbolic leader of his party.  In fact, his views in favor of ending slavery were considered more radical than those of Lincoln.  Seward had already been a U.S. Senator for 11 years.  He previously served as Governor of New York for 4 years, and before that a New York State Senator.  Needless to say, Seward was as qualified a candidate as one could find for the office.  It was Lincoln though, who gained a national reputation as a political dynamo and eloquent spokesman for freedom during his run for U.S. Senate against Stephen A. Douglas, where he participated in the now famous debates on slavery aptly named the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  Much of Lincoln's fame, like Obama's, was gained as a result of his skill as an orator and idea maker rather than as a legislator.  As David Brooks writes of past leaders, "Many of the best presidents in U.S. history had their character forged before they entered politics and carried to it a degree of self-possession and tranquility that was impervious to the Sturm und Drang of White House life."

I do not mention this well known lesson in history with the intention of making a comparison between Lincoln and Obama.  He has a very long way to go to be considered among such company.  What this story does do is beg the question: What is more important in predicting success in a potential executive leader, amount of physical experience accumulated over time in what is considered an appropriate elective office(s), or whether or not one possesses a center of personal gravity that is keen and expansive enough to create and advance a brand of leadership so potent that it effectively transcends the great wealth of professional knowledge accumulated throughout the travails of building a lengthy resume?  The manifestation of the latter quality is so rare that it is sparsely seen among the majority of even the most accomplished in our society.  To succeed, it must be the stuff of greatness.

It would be a bit much to suggest there is an inverse relationship between experience and effectiveness, but perhaps not a stretch to suggest experience is not necessarily paramount among desirable qualifications, or in terms of voting, our own considerations, for who is to be our next president.  It may also be suggested that the larger the job, the less experience in very similar capacities matters.  One's ability to execute and lead should be the ultimate measure of qualification.

There is in fact a true inverse relationship at work here; as the number of collective responsibilities taken on by an executive increase, the necessity for them to possess or use their direct, specific experience in any given area of responsibility diminishes.  I will use a field I have personal experience in as an example.  If I am managing a small city council race where at most I may have one or two employees or loyal volunteers under my supervision, it is essential I know how to work a voter file, assemble mailing universes, generate walk lists and call sheets, write press releases, track voter data, write letters, design and write campaign materials and develop a campaign message, or at least have a respectable handle on several of these responsibilities.  The more of these tasks I am able to personally execute the better. 
On the other hand, if I am running a statewide campaign for public office there will be several people under my supervision who can take care of each specific part of my operation on their own, as experts in each of their individual fields.  My expert experience in any given field is no longer as important as my sense of direction and ability to motivate that sense in others in order that they are able to carry out each unique task as effectively as possible within the scope of our message.  It is my power of thought and imagination that matters most, not my knowledge of the inner workings of any specific portion of a campaign.

As the manager of a large campaign brings in experts to carry out these specific skill-oriented tasks the president brings in experts in every field necessary to assist in running the country. 

When I am asked at a job interview the always banal question “can you tell us what your biggest weakness is” I immediately resist answering “my terrible habit of working too hard, ”and always honestly reveal my tendency to want to do everything in front of me myself.  Presidents and governors, unlike legislators, cannot do this. In fact, too direct an influence in too many matters may be detrimental to their ability to function as effectively as possible.  They must posses and employ a discipline that requires elevation above the fray.  The position is too large and the responsibility too great for them to function from a linear perspective.  They must act as steadfast navigators through storms of information, relevant and irrelevant, absorbed at such a sustained level that it necessitates download on other parties in order to be fully digested and acted upon.

Mr. Obama himself believes Ms. Clinton may be helpful to him in this area.  In his December 23rd New York Times Op-Ed titled "A Résumé Can’t Buy You Love" Frank Rich describes this exchange at a recent Democratic debate held in Des Moines Iowa: “This was the moment when Mr. Obama was asked how he could deliver a clean break from the past while relying on 'so many Clinton advisers.'  Mrs. Clinton jokingly called out, 'I want to hear that,' prompting Mr. Obama to one-up her by responding, 'Well, Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me, as well.'”  Perhaps they'll both be advising John Edwards.

Let us turn to our home state for a vivid example of how public expectations based on experience may be wrong.  Take the case of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who could by all means be called a man of experience.  Spitzer is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Law Review.  After serving in various roles as an attorney, including and Assistant District Attorney in NYC, he was elected to statewide office in 1998 where he served in an executive position for 8 years.  There is no doubt that after serving as Attorney General, Spitzer had the experience of knowing what it is like to be responsible for the welfare of the populace of an entire state and the responsibility that comes with doing so.  Yet by all accounts Spitzer has not been up to the task as our governor.  Perhaps, as Henry Stern puts it, he is a victim of the Peter Principle, "according to which a person is promoted until he reaches a level at which he or she is incompetent."  The jury is still out.  What can be safely determined so far is that the same skills that which by all accounts served him well in his capacity as Attorney General seem now to have been rendered ineffective in the wake of his caustic personality and style, lack of creativeness and direction, and general inability to act as a serious person.

On the other hand we have the case of NYS Comptroller
Thomas DiNapoli, whom I had the privilege of hearing speak at a recent breakfast hosted by Crain's New York Business.  It would not be a stretch to say that DiNapoli was impressive in his oratory, confidence, and vision for moving the office forward.  Alan Hevesi, who pled guilty to defrauding the government, a Class E felony, to avoid a felony indictment for having staffers drive his wife around the state and assist her with personal matters on taxpayer funds, resigned as New York State Comptroller in January of 2007.  Soon after DiNapoli applied for the position.  After a battle between Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Governor Spitzer the legislature, against Spitzer's wishes, elected DiNapoli to the position by a vote of 150-56.  Not surprisingly, Silver won.  When DiNapoli took office in February of 2007 much was made of his lack of knowledge with regard to the job, and there is little doubt he was not fully qualified in the traditional sense to perform his duties at the outset.  A graduate of Hofstra University, neither an accountant nor an attorney, DiNapoli, unlike Spitzer, had never served in an executive capacity, but instead as a Nassau County legislator in the New York State Assembly for 21 years.  Furthermore, DiNapoli never before experienced, as Spitzer had, what it was to bear the burden of being chosen by a statewide electorate, nor had to ever endure the full force of the personal burden accrued when one must often weigh the potential results of serious executive decisions and their direct ramifications on people on a statewide level.

Yet after a short period of time (under one year, a term just short chronologically of Spitzer's) the comptroller has grown to be a very effective and meticulous steward of his office, constantly pushing for transparency in a closely watched environment.  He has learned to use the specific, professional skills of those who are under his employ and supervision by forging a vision of reform and professionalism essential in effectively doing the business of the people he represents.  This is because his personality and willingness to innovate have allowed him to work with people who know each aspect of the job, learn from them, and carry out his duties in a manner that has exceeded many expectations.  He knows how to listen.  In fact, he has been so selfless in the performance of his duties that he has yet to raise campaign funds.  His past experience may not have been specific to the field of economics or dealing so directly with such a large economy, but his more important inner compass understood what it took to fix and reform an office critically damaged by the shortcomings of Mr. Hevesi.

We use the examples of Mr. Spitzer and Mr. DiNapoli to highlight real instances where what is expected of people based on experience may not always determine their performance when they are suddenly faced with a greater challenge.  The comparison can in no way be used to predict how either Ms. Clinton or Mr. Obama will perform in the office of the presidency.  What it can show is that our assumptions about what does or doesn't prepare one for rising to an important occasion may sometimes be wrong.

Even the assumptions our assumptions are based on are not always accurate.  Some have even taken issue of late as to whether Ms. Clinton really has the experience she claims to.  In a December 26th New York Times article titled, “The Résumé Factor: Those 8 Years as First Lady” examining the true extent of Ms. Clinton's involvement in her husband's administration Patrick Healy writes, “during those two terms in the White House, Mrs. Clinton did not hold a security clearance. She did not attend National Security Council meetings. She was not given a copy of the president's daily intelligence briefing. She did not assert herself on the crises in Somalia, Haiti and Rwanda.”

The fact that Ms. Clinton's experience is up for debate solidifies the notion that there is no perfect measure of what can be derived from one's past, or whether or not that past is even applicable to the potential task at hand.

Healy then introduces Obama's own suspension of belief by writing, “Her rivals scoff at the idea that her background gives her any special qualifications for the presidency. Senator Barack Obama has especially questioned 'what experiences she's claiming' as first lady, noting that the job is not the same as being a cabinet member, much less president.”

Healy continues, “An interview with Mrs. Clinton, conversations with 35 Clinton administration officials and a review of books about her White House years suggest that she was more of a sounding board than a policy maker, who learned through osmosis rather than decision-making, and who grew gradually more comfortable with the use of military power.”

The word osmosis is taken from Ted Sorensen, the J.F.K. speechwriter now in the Obama camp, who Frank Rich says, “saw the backlash coming in a recent conversation I had with him after Mrs. Clinton had mocked Mr. Obama for counting his elementary-school years in Indonesia as an asset.”  Sorensen warns the Clinton camp, 'Hillary should be careful about scoffing at other people's experience.  It's not as if the process of osmosis gives her presidential qualities by physical proximity.'”

Perhaps not, but make no mistake.  Ms. Clinton is an educated, gifted and able woman capable of handling a great deal of adversity.  Despite Mr. Obama and his supporters' oft-expressed reservations with regard to the importance of what she did or did not learn or engage in during her white house tenure to her potential performance as president, she is undoubtedly a woman of experience.  The question here is may there be a difference between capable and great? 

The answer in our state is clear.  Our governor is underperforming.  Right now he is far from great.  The difference nationally is potentially much more subtle. How far are the American people willing to go in their trust of someone without extensive on the job experience?  Is placing the hope for greatness yet to be proven above the collective sense of security that is gained from knowing their president understands with greater precision every facet of doing her job a risk voters are willing to take?

Frank Rich may have the answer, “If Mrs. Clinton is to win, she won't do so by running on that kind of experience but by rising above it. Bill Clinton wouldn't have shifted gears to refer to his wife constantly as a 'change agent,' however implausibly, if his acute political sensors didn't tell him that Americans are not just willing but eager to roll the dice.”

Mr. Clinton should be concerned.

#B3 12.31.2007 2662wds

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