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.
"In my view, because the relationship between the Congress and (President Bush) has been so dysfunctional, voters basically saw experience as a negative factor," Richardson says. "They wanted something new and different. Voters wanted an inspirational type of candidate who was perceived to be a non-politician. I tried to weave 'change' and 'experience' as my mantra, but it just didn't work."
Before the Iowa caucuses, Richardson ran three wry, 30-second TV ads that showed him at a mock job interview.
"OK, 14 years in Congress, U.N. ambassador, secretary of Energy, governor of New Mexico, negotiated with dictators," a bored middle manager behind a desk said, clearly unimpressed as he thumbed through Richardson's application.
"So what makes you think you can be president?"
'Mr. Government' fails
The obtuse interviewer may have had a point. Predictions about presidential performance — even for candidates with impressive backgrounds — are notoriously unreliable, says historian and presidential biographer Robert Dallek.
"There are so many presidents with a great deal of experience who failed miserably," Dallek says. "Think first of all of James Buchanan, 1857 to 1861, from the run-up to the Civil War — so experienced that they called him 'Mr. Government' — and now invariably listed as one of the worst presidents in the country's history."
Buchanan had been a member of the House and Senate, secretary of State and minister to Great Britain. As president, however, he did little to respond when Southern states began to secede from the Union.
Buchanan's successor was Abraham Lincoln, a prairie lawyer who served eight years in the Illinois Legislature and one term in the U.S. House. "He had next to no experience at all," Dallek says, "and now is seen as probably the greatest president in the country's history."
Voters have to assess for themselves a candidate's judgment, character and common sense, but "it really is a crapshoot," he says. "Experience is fine, but does it guarantee anything? Not by any stretch of the imagination."
Even running a smart, disciplined campaign offers no assurances of competence. Ronald Reagan, widely viewed as one of the most consequential post-World War II presidents, dumped his top campaign staff in 1980 after struggling in the opening Iowa caucuses. Jimmy Carter led a shrewd, streamlined campaign for the job in 1976 — and then had a difficult presidency and was ousted by Reagan after one term.
Reading the clues
There are clues to what sort of president the current contenders would be from what they've said and what they've done:
•McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, touts his service to the nation since he took an oath of allegiance as an entering midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis at age 17. He was a Navy aviator and a POW during the Vietnam War, returning to serve for a year as commanding officer of a Navy training squadron with more than 1,000 servicemembers — an experience he cited in a candidates' debate in California last month when asked about his leadership credentials.
An Arizona senator for more than two decades, he has been chairman of the Commerce Committee and a leading voice on national security issues. He's also known for bucking Republican orthodoxy and working across party lines, one reason the most conservative elements of his party have been cool to his campaign.
For all his experience, McCain has acknowledged that he doesn't know much about the economy, which is the most important issue worrying Americans, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken this month.
"The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should," he told reporters in December while campaigning in New Hampshire. He joked, "I've got (former Federal Reserve chairman Alan) Greenspan's book."
Although McCain's campaign has done well lately, it had to recover from an implosion last summer when his top aides left, his poll standing slumped and his campaign bank accounts were mostly exhausted.
•Clinton, 60, has displayed her mastery of the details of domestic and foreign policy in a string of campaign debates. During eight years as first lady, she represented the United States in visits to 80 countries. In seven years as a senator from New York, she's worked on issues from veterans benefits to farm aid, sometimes in alliances with Republicans, and served on the Armed Services Committee.
She describes herself as a strong manager who could ride herd on the sprawling federal bureaucracy — in contrast, she says, to Obama.
"I do think that being president is the chief executive officer," she said at a debate in Las Vegas last month. "I respect what Barack said about setting the vision, setting the tone, bringing people together. But I think you have to be able to manage and run the bureaucracy. You've got to pick good people, certainly, but you have to hold them accountable every single day."
Obama and others say she failed in her chief executive initiative as first lady. Her management of a health care task force early in her husband's presidency produced a controversial overhaul plan that went nowhere.
•Obama says he's proven his good judgment by opposing the Iraq invasion from the start, in contrast to Clinton and McCain. He describes himself as an inspirational leader who can bring opposing forces together to get things done better than "this same old cast of characters" in Washington. He doesn't see the president as being "an operating officer," he says, and would rely on strong advisers to manage the details.
"Now, being president is not making sure that schedules are being run properly or the paperwork is being shuffled effectively," he said at the Las Vegas debate. "It involves having a vision for where the country needs to go."
Even so, Clinton and McCain say Obama offers more soaring rhetoric than solid results and question whether he can claim significant legislative accomplishments or adequate experience.
He served eight years in the Illinois Legislature and has been in the U.S. Senate for three. That's less high-level government experience than any president since Dwight Eisenhower, whose background was in the military.
The five-star general was supreme commander of allied forces in Europe during World War II.
Lincoln or Hoover?
"Maybe (Obama) is Lincoln; maybe he's (the beleaguered Herbert) Hoover. There's no way to tell in advance," says David Frum, a White House speechwriter at the beginning of Bush's tenure who wrote an account of his early presidency, The Right Man. However, that's probably not the decisive question, Frum says.
"Americans don't vote for the guy with the most experience. If that was true, (Richard) Nixon would have defeated (John) Kennedy in 1960," Frum says. Instead, voters want candidates to meet a threshold of readiness that makes them an acceptable risk to elect as president. "What they seem to do is decide, 'Do you have enough?' "
Little time to learn the ropes
The question of readiness matters because presidents often face unexpected challenges in their first weeks and months in office, before there's been much time to install a staff or learn the ropes.
Less than three months after taking office in 1961, Kennedy approved an invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro forces that had been planned during the Eisenhower administration. The Bay of Pigs venture failed disastrously and raised doubts among world leaders about the young American president.
Less than four months after taking office, Harry Truman approved dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities — the culmination of a nuclear weapons program he hadn't even been told about as vice president. Six days later, after an immediate death toll estimated at more than 100,000, Japan surrendered. World War II was over.
It's possible no one can be fully prepared for the velocity of the presidency, a point some presidents and their closest advisers acknowledge after they've made it there.
Bill Clinton had been Arkansas governor for 12 years and had been a leading figure in national debates over domestic policy issues. Even so, after he became president in 1993 he quickly became enmeshed in controversies over gays in the military and the White House travel office, among other things. Only after stunning setbacks in the 1994 congressional elections — Democrats lost control of the House and Senate — did he seem to find his footing as president.
George W. Bush had been Texas governor for six years, CEO of oil industry ventures and managing partner of baseball's Texas Rangers before moving into the Oval Office in 2001 — an "MBA president" who would bring corporate decision-making to the job. Less than eight months later, he had to deal with the Sept. 11 attacks.
His job approval rating hit a historic high of 90% in the aftermath, but Bush has seen Americans' assessment of his presidency sour amid questions over whether the war in Iraq was necessary. His job approval rating was 33% in the latest USA TODAY poll.
"The difference between being president and virtually any other job — running a company or being in the Congress or in the Senate or even being a governor — is the breadth and rapidity of decisions that come at you," says John Podesta, who was Bill Clinton's chief of staff. Podesta heads a think tank, the Center for American Progress.
"You need to both be able to chart a course that emphasizes your priorities but (also) be able to handle and manage things that you never even thought of that are coming at you from left field," Podesta says.
"Stuff just happens."
Confronted by crisis
Presidents have faced defining decisions, some unexpected, soon after taking office. Some examples: