Sunday, February 24, 2008

Obama is No JFK but Even If He Was His Inexperience Can’t be Cavalierly Dismissed
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

In a recent address at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton blasted arch rival Barack Obama for his inexperience. This should not be dismissed as another frantic, grasp at straws by Clinton to slow the momentum of his campaign or a badly overrated quality that few first time presidents need bring to the Oval Office anyway. The tout of Obama as the second coming of John F. Kennedy is supposed proof that a Senator with ideals and vision, ala JFK, can work wonders for the country even if short on experience.
The Obama-JFK comparison is a bad stretch and the dismissal of experience as a president-to-be attribute is an even worse stretch. JFK majored in foreign policy at Harvard and was a decorated naval war hero. His father, Papa Joe, was a multi-millionaire diplomat, confidant of presidents, and consummate political deal maker. This enabled JFK to meet a slew of European leaders. He wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book, served fourteen years in the Senate and Congress, and came close to getting the vice presidential nomination in 1956.

Despite JFK’s years of public policy experience and political acumen, that Obama can’t match, he was still woefully ill equipped to deal with the two biggest crises that confronted his administration; the Cuban Missile crisis and the civil rights crisis. The mythmakers have spun a picture of a cool, calm, and collected JFK facing down Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1962. He allegedly forced him to get Russian missiles out of Cuba and that saved the world from nuclear destruction.
The truth is far different. In his memoirs Khrushchev gloated that the Soviet Union never had any intention of going to war over Cuba, and that the missiles were a bargaining chip to get the U.S. to remove American missiles from Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union. The other aim was to get the U.S. to guarantee the security of Castro’s regime.

Even if Khrushchev’s boast is sloughed off as a face saving historical falsity to burnish up his badly tarnished image; the fact is that American missiles were removed from Turkey. And in the nearly half century after the missile show-down, there has been no US military effort to oust Castro. He stepped down voluntarily and will likely die of old age.

The U.S. –Soviet stand down was brokered through back channel talks initiated by Robert Kennedy with the Soviet ambassador to the U.S. After they hammered out the bare details of the agreement it took urging by RFK and other Kennedy senior advisors to get Kennedy to finally approve the deal. JFK’s inexperience in a crisis moment cost valuable time, delays, and raised tensions. It had another tragic by-product. It earned JFK the undying enmity of the thousands of Cuban-Americans.
Then there’s the issue of civil rights. The Obama camp twisted and mangled an innocent comment Clinton made in which she praised President Lyndon Baines Johnson for driving the 1964 civil rights bill through Congress. Supposedly Clinton defamed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by minimizing his role in getting a civil rights law. Clinton, of course, got it right. It took every bit of Johnson’s relentless political arm twisting, cajoling, and deal making skills to get wavering Republicans and hostile Southern Senators who controlled key committees to back the bill or soften their vehement opposition to it.

The bill though was not Johnson’s. It was introduced by Kennedy. Despite his efforts, Kennedy could not budge Congress to take action. JFK simply did not have the political muscle to budge the bill’s opponents. Johnson did have the experience and the muscle to ultimately force passage.

The rap against Obama that he lacks the requisite experience to get the job done effectively in the White House is not a cheap and meaningless campaign shot at him. The American presidency should not be an OJT position. Voters shouldn’t be asked to make a leap of faith that an untested candidate can smoothly and effortlessly handle crisis situations that inevitably arise. Inexperienced presidents are poor crisis managers. They get us into costly and unpopular wars and brush fire conflicts. They alienate foreign friends and allies. They bungle the economy. And their administrations more times than not are riddled with corruption and cronyism. The disastrous proof is the administration of the man that Obama seeks to replace.
Even without fingering Bush’s foreign and domestic policy bumbles and ineptitude, the presidents that have been most successful in recent decades have been FDR, Bill Clinton and Dwight Eisenhower. They had two things in common. They had extensive executive and administrative experience either as governors, or in the case of Eisenhower, in the armed forces before they became president.

The lack of administrative and crisis management experience shouldn’t disqualify a prospective presidential candidate, or mean that he or she will crumble under fire. At the same time, their inexperience raises a giant question mark about the candidate. That can’t be cavalierly dismissed.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).