According to the candidates and the pundits, if you have it, you’re eligible to serve in the White House. If you don’t, you are unqualified for the world’s most important and second-most important jobs. We refer, of course, to “executive experience,” even if it’s been obtained on the local level or by influencing some consequential sphere of activity for a short time.

John McCain is said to have it because he commanded a Navy fighter squadron. His running mate, Sarah Palin, governed the state of Alaska. Barack Obama is a United States senator and did community organizing on a local level. And Joe Biden has decades of service in the U.S. Senate and has compiled a noteworthy record in foreign policy.

But do any of these resume points qualify as executive experience? While a governor is the chief administrative and operating officer of a state, and controls the actions of hundreds of employees, a U.S. senator’s staff size is only a fraction of that of a governor’s – even in the case of the smallest state in area or population. So executive experience appears to be something more than managing people and projects, or “getting things done.” It means more than gathering a team together and leading them to accomplish meaningful goals.

In listing U.S. presidents by previous executive experience, the Winston Encyclopedia cites five without this qualification. Executive experience in this case was defined as “experience where one is the top (or 2nd top) decision maker for the company, state, large military unit, and so on. The five “unqualified” were James Madison, John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy.

Fortunately, all the vice presidents who unexpectedly succeeded the president because of assassination or removal from office were deemed to have executive experience. A unique example is Grover Cleveland, who served as mayor of Greeneville, Tennessee, governor of Tennessee, and president of the United States – elected twice, but not consecutively.

One of the most thoughtful essays on how much experience matters in a would-be president comes from David Von Drehle. Writing in TIME magazine, Von Drehle notes that “the question of experience takes on added bite this year, because the next President will inherit a troubled and menacing satchel of problems.” The list includes the Iraq situation, the economy, the China challenge, health-care, development of nuclear weapons by rogue nations, and America’s continued dependence on foreign oil. [TIME, Feb. 28, 2008]

Can McCain or Obama or Biden or Palin develop a vision for American that extends well beyond the problems of today and next month? Can any of the candidates place us on a path for a better America that may not reach fruition for years, even after the candidate’s term has long expired? Sandy Froman, a Republican delegate to last week’s convention, has charged that “Obama and Biden talk for a living.” On the other hand, says Froman, Sarah Palin not only runs a state, but is “commander-in-chief of the fiercely independent Alaska National Guard.”

Another of Obama’s potential pitfalls, says Von Drehle, are the frequent comparisons of Obama to J.F.K. This is a comparison better evaded, since Kennedy’s ill-conceived invasion of Cuba was a classic case of the insufficiency of charisma alone. The fact is, each of the current four candidates carries some serious experiential baggage into the race, and all are untried in making solitary decisions on a global basis.

More than ever, among the talents needed by the next president of the United States will be an ability to recruit and bring together the best and brightest of both parties, and that includes special aptitudes from outside-the-Beltway as well as those inside. In today’s ominous and turbulent world, there will be little time for experimentation or trial and error. The new chief executive and his subaltern will have to get it right the first time. The traditional “honeymoon” right after an election has been long gone… and unlikely to surface again.

Chase Hamil

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