Is Obama Experienced?

The press shouldn’t just repeat the criticism as fact

It has become clear that one of John McCain’s major lines of attack against Barack Obama will be that the Illinois senator lacks the experience to be president.

Last week, McCain declared that Obama’s willingness to meet with the leader of Iran betrayed his “inexperience and reckless judgment.” A few days later, he offered this backhanded compliment:

For a young man with very little experience, he’s done very well. I appreciate his very great lack of experience and knowledge of the issues. He’s been very successful.

Now there are signs that this talking point about Obama’s “inexperience,” particularly on foreign policy, is starting to seep into the mainstream media’s coverage of the race, taking on the status of an established fact.

On Sunday, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News asked his guest, Karl Rove: “How would you deal with the inexperience issue if you were [Obama] right now?” (Click on “Watch: What Would Karl Rove Do?”) The question, which took for granted that Obama is indeed inexperienced, simply set Rove up to hammer the point home. Obama should “go get some,” he replied. (We’ll leave for another post the absurdity of asking a question like this of Rove and expecting any kind of good-faith response at all—a point that Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, among others, has made before.)

Before this notion gets hammered into the narrative of the race any further, it would be a good idea for the press to independently assess its validity. Because, although Obama undoubtedly has less political experience than McCain (who’s been in Congress since 1982 and in the Senate since 1986), he doesn’t have much less than the last two presidents did when they took office. And in terms of foreign policy, which is the issue at the center of the inexperience charge, he has more.

Obama spent eight years in the Illinois Senate, and by November will have spent four in the U.S. Senate. Since coming to Washington, he’s served on the foreign relations committee, and worked on legislation to prevent the spread of nuclear material.

George W. Bush ran for office in 2000 on the basis of six years as governor of Texas—a state that gives its governor an unusually small amount of real authority. He had barely set foot outside the country, and famously failed to name the president of Pakistan when asked by a reporter. (Bush’s campaign, of course, was masterminded by Karl Rove, who now claims to worry about Obama’s lack of experience.)

And in 1992, Bill Clinton had been governor of Arkansas for ten years. That’s more experience—in terms of being a chief executive—than Obama has, but in terms of foreign policy, it’s far less.

Of course, some observers point to Clinton’s lack of foreign policy experience as the reason for his administration’s early missteps in Bosnia and Rwanda. And we all know how Bush’s foreign policy turned out. So if McCain and the GOP want to argue that only the Arizona senator has enough experience to be “Ready on Day One”—as first Hillary Clinton and now McCain himself have put it—that’s obviously their right (though anyone who backed Bush in 2000 would be hypocritical for making that argument).

But the media shouldn’t play along. When it reports the GOP attack, it should also, as often as possible, seek to offer the context laid out above, that lets voters judge the question for themselves. And it should definitely avoid endorsing the charge by accepting it as an unassailable statement of fact, and putting the onus on the Obama camp to “address” it.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.