Ready, or not?
Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and Republican John McCain all boast about their preparation and credentials for the Oval Office — and their ability to, as Clinton has called it, be "ready on Day One to solve our problems."
In South Texas last week, the New York senator urged voters "to think who you want to have in the White House answering the phone at 3 o'clock in the morning when some crisis breaks out somewhere in the world." McCain said in Columbus, "I'm not the youngest candidate, but I am the most experienced."
And Obama said in Austin that his "cumulative experience," including as a community organizer in Chicago, "is the reason that I have the capacity to bring people together" and lead the nation.
Maybe so, but the three leading contenders for president have less executive grounding than anyone elected to the White House in nearly a half-century. Each candidate has scored impressive achievements in life, but none has run a city or state, a small business or large corporation — or any bureaucracy larger than their Senate staffs and campaign teams.
The crux of Clinton's campaign against Obama for the Democratic nomination centers on whether the 46-year-old, first-term senator from Illinois is ready to be president. In recent days, McCain, 71, has taken a similar line, calling Obama "dangerously naive."
The debate is sure to continue into the fall over what experience is essential before taking on the job of managing the government, negotiating with Congress, commanding the armed forces, mobilizing public support at home and responding to crises abroad.
What sort of president would each contender be on Day One? And how are voters supposed to figure that out?
The Senate, home base for all three, is a better place to nurture presidential ambitions than to train for the White House, says Stanley Renshon, a political scientist at the City University of New York and psychoanalyst who has written books on the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The White House and the Congress often demand different skills and styles, he says.
"As a senator, you're sitting around in a committee or making a Senate speech and if you say, 'We ought to do X' and it turns out you should have done Y, you bury the speech or nuance it with another speech," Renshon says. "You have command responsibility as president. When you decide to send troops or not to send troops, that's a real commitment in terms of consequences."
He says voters haven't focused on the readiness issue — Clinton's questions about Obama's experience haven't noticeably stalled his momentum — but predicts they eventually will turn to it. "Right now, people haven't really started to concentrate on the hard choices they'll have to make to trust" the candidates as potential presidents.
So far, the political watchword in the 2008 campaign hasn't been experience; it's been change. The candidates with the most executive experience didn't make it to the final rounds of primaries and caucuses — among Republicans, Mitt Romney, a former CEO and Massachusetts governor who ran the 2002 Winter Olympics, and among Democrats, Bill Richardson. He served in Congress, in Bill Clinton's Cabinet and at the United Nations before becoming governor of New Mexico.