Clinton vs. Obama: The Experience Question

Does Barack Obama have have enough experience to be president? This is the question Hillary Clinton would like to spend the next seven months debating. Her slogan is that she's "ready to lead"; she cites her extensive foreign travel and sessions with world leaders. For his part, Obama prefers to talk about living overseas and the good judgment he displayed in opposing the Iraq War from the start. For months, Clinton and Obama have taken subtle digs at each other's résumés. But there's nothing subtle about it now.

At last week's contentious presidential debate, Obama was asked if he would meet with hostile foreign leaders like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions in the first year of his presidency. Obama said he would. He said George W. Bush's policy of shunning those leaders had failed, and he would bring about change. Clinton turned the answer against Obama. She said she would not meet with the hostile leaders without preconditions, and suggested that anyone who did would be "used for propaganda purposes." The fight didn't end there. In the days that followed, Clinton called Obama "irresponsible" and "naive"; Obama labeled her "Bush-Cheney lite."

On one level, the dustup was just the usual campaign tit for tat, and it showed that both sides have skilled professionals on staff readying their sound bites. But beyond the nasty one-liners, there still remains the real question that neither candidate has seriously addressed: when it comes to being president, what does "experience" mean—and how important is it in picking a commander in chief?

Both Clinton and Obama have called on foreign-policy heavyweights to educate them on the issues and help shape their approach to world affairs. But neither candidate would bring much in the way of hands-on foreign-policy experience to the Oval Office. Their efforts to promote their credentials can seem strained. Clinton's aides point to her extensive travel to more than 80 countries as First Lady and her 1995 speech at a U.N. conference on women in Beijing. "She helped represent the United States abroad throughout the '90s," says Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications director. "Obviously, that's an important qualification. She went to China and gave a very famous and important address when she declared that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights. That electrified the world." But these sanitized, ceremonial trips abroad are hardly preparation for the middle-of-the-night call from the Situation Room. After all, Laura Bush has also traveled extensively as First Lady, taking in 68 countries either with her husband or on her own. No one is saying she has the experience to be commander in chief.

Obama stresses life experience. At a private meeting with journalists and executives in Manhattan last week, he claimed he had better judgment than "any other candidate." "And I don't base that simply on the fact that I was right on the war in Iraq," he said, according to a transcript provided by campaign staff. "But if you look at how I approached that problem, what I was drawing on was a set of experiences that come from a life of living overseas, having family overseas, being able to see the world through the eyes of people outside our borders. The notion that somehow from Washington you get this vast foreign-policy experience is illusory."

That may be well phrased. But in reality, Obama lived overseas—in Indonesia—for just four years as a kid. And voters may not warm to a candidate whose judgments are shaped by overseas relatives. (In combating Clinton's criticisms, Obama has an unlikely ally in Bill Clinton. Obama aides unearthed comments from Bill's first campaign, in which he eloquently deflected the same kinds of charges of inexperience she's now leveling at Obama.)

Would more foreign-policy experience make Obama or Clinton a better president? It's not at all clear that experience necessarily leads to good decisions, or that inexperience necessarily leads to bad ones. George W. Bush, facing questions about his own lack of foreign-policy gravitas in 2000, made a point of surrounding himself with national-security experts—Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice. He still got the country stuck in the quagmire of Iraq and is deeply unpopular at home and abroad. Hillary Clinton says she will restore her husband's foreign policy. Yet Bill Clinton had no foreign-policy experience when he entered the Oval Office. His first campaign promised to focus on domestic affairs, in contrast to his experienced predecessor, George H.W. Bush. During Clinton's time in office, he faced continual criticism that he lacked any strategic vision in global affairs. He presided over the disastrous U.S. intervention in Somalia and failed to stop the genocide in Rwanda. Still, he commands respect for acting—eventually—to halt the carnage in the former Yugoslavia and moving closer to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than any other leader. And compared with the current president, Bill Clinton was, and remains, popular overseas.

Obama's supporters like to compare the freshman senator to another popular Democrat who entered the White House with little experience in global affairs: JFK. But Kennedy's record as president was decidedly mixed. He approved the Bay of Pigs fiasco in the first three months of his presidency, but successfully resolved the Cuban missile crisis a year later.

There is little in the résumés of either Clinton or Obama that will help them negotiate their way through the vast and complex array of foreign-policy challenges the next president will face—in Iraq and beyond. Over the coming months, we may get to hear from them in detail on these points. Yet so far, the bickering over experience reveals more about the character of the campaigns than the qualifications of the candidates.