Does Hillary Clinton Really Have More Experience than Barack Obama?

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T. Alissa Warters is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Francis Marion University. Scott Kaufman is Associate Professor of History at Francis Marion University. Mr. Kaufman is the author of Rosalynn Carter: Equal Partner in the White House.

For the past few months of the Democratic race for the 2008 presidential nomination, the candidates have focused on two issues: experience and change. It is hard to assess whether any of them will promote change if elected, as none of them have yet to win the presidency, let alone the party nomination. On the matter of experience, Hillary Clinton claims that she should be the nominee because she has more government service than her top rival, Barack Obama. Here, though, there is a problem: what constitutes “experience”? In addition, the candidates have not distinguished themselves well in terms of policy preferences. Unless voters see clear differences in policy proposals or support, they must turn to other factors when casting their ballots.

Hillary Clinton asserts that she has 35 years of leadership experience and will be ready to lead from minute one—no learning curve necessary. The campaign signs appearing at Hillary Clinton town hall meetings and rallies across the country simply state: “READY.” The implication is that Barack Obama has no experience and will have to learn on the job. Hillary clearly defines “experience” as including her legal work for the Children’s Defense Fund, her time in private legal practice at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, her years as first lady of Arkansas, her eight years as first lady of the United States, and the additional eight years she has served as a senator for New York.

Yet does all of this constitute governmental experience? For instance, it is the case that as first lady Mrs. Clinton was more active than many of her predecessors. But one could argue that other first ladies have been more experienced and more successful in their initiatives. For instance, Rosalynn Carter was considered by her husband to be such a trusted advisor that she attended Cabinet meetings (the first first lady to do so) and had regular “working lunches” with President Carter to discuss public policy measures. Rosalynn Carter testified before Congress, served as her husband’s official representative when she visited Latin America in 1977 and successfully led President Carter’s Commission on Mental Health. By most accounts, although Mrs. Clinton was a very active first lady, she was also very controversial and not wholly successful in her endeavors. While President Bill Clinton did assign his wife as head of a task force to reform the nation’s health care system, that effort ended in failure. Mrs. Clinton was also embroiled in a number of scandals while first lady, leading her to be the first first lady to ever be subpoenaed for her involvement in the Whitewater scandal.

Furthermore, all first ladies can claim to have some level of experience. Historians of the office of the first lady here use the term “pillow talk:” the idea that a president will discuss with his wife the issues of the day, if not listen to her advice on how to handle matters. As mentioned, Rosalynn Carter served in this capacity in a more official manner, but Mrs. Clinton was also a close advisor to her husband. First ladies are in essence witnesses to history and witnesses to the decision-making process. Even though this is not equivalent to formal executive experience, it is as close as one can get. The problem for first ladies has been that if they appear to play too active a role in an administration it can lead to a backlash. Time and again, American voters had shown resentment toward presidential wives who assume what the public believes are jobs which should be taken on only by those who are elected or appointed to office and, therefore, are legally and politically accountable for their actions. First ladies have no constitutional standing; therefore, voters look upon them with suspicion when they become too active in the policy-making process.

If voters were to look only at Mrs. Clinton’s legislative experience, then Senator Obama actually surpasses his rival. He was in the Illinois state senate for eight years, serving from 1997 to 2004 before being elected to the U.S. Senate, where he has served for three years. Thus, Obama has three years more legislative experience than Senator Clinton. But again, the question must be asked, does legislative experience on its own equal the type of experience needed to be president of the United States?

Finally, does the issue of experience even resonate with voters? Here, the numbers suggest it does, but not as much as that of someone willing to promote change. In the Iowa caucus, which Obama won by eight percentage points, a majority of the voters (52%) said the top quality they were looking for in their candidate was that they could bring about change. Of that 52%, 51% said that Obama was the candidate they believed would bring about change, while only 19% said that about Clinton. This trend continued in New Hampshire and South Carolina. In both states, 54% of the voters argued that they were looking for a candidate who would promote change. Of that number, 55% in New Hampshire and a 75% in South Carolina stated that Obama was the candidate who could bring change, versus only 28% and 15%, respectively, for Clinton.

These statistics highlight that the Democratic primary voters are looking for change first. In Iowa and New Hampshire the voters stated that experience was the second quality that they were looking for in a candidate (20% and 19% respectively). In South Carolina, voters stated that experience was the third (14%) quality for which they were looking, with a candidate who seemed to care about them as their second greatest concern (24%). The reason for the switch in South Carolina could have been because of comments by former President Bill Clinton on the topic of race while he campaigned in South Carolina on behalf of his wife. Even so, the fact that voters in all three states have argued that change was their main priority is intriguing.

The only problem for both candidates is how the voters are defining change. To Barack Obama, it refers to someone who is an outsider with fresh ideas who has not had time to be corrupted by Washington politics. He argues that the American people have seen the results of having two members of the same family lead the country in close succession and that voters should not make that mistake again. Thus, change for him means not returning Hillary Clinton to the White House for another four to eight years. Clinton, on the other hand, argues that she will bring change because she is the only candidate who has the experience to quickly overturn the Bush Administration policies of the past eight years, especially in terms of the war in Iraq, taxes, spending, and health care. Clinton’s definition of change is much more concrete than Obama’s, but as is clear on the campaign trail and in the exit polls, the voters are not responding so much to policy change but to symbolic change. Just the environment at the Obama rallies across the country highlight this fact. The events have the feel of a rock concert with the crowds anxiously waiting to see their hero emerge from behind the curtain.

In the end, though, the voters will get the best type of change, no matter which candidate wins the nomination—they will have nominated for the first time a woman or African American for president. And that will be change indeed.

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More Comments:

R.R. Hamilton - 2/14/2008

The biggest vote-getter in the 1972 Democratic primaries was Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace.

DeWayne Edward Benson - 2/14/2008

At a time when Americans are finally beginning to stand up and demanding (Real Change) in government and politics, the Democratic party has begun a sleazy method of side stepping the mandate and intentions of their constituents. They call this new method 'Super Delegates', where insiders of the DEM-machine are given delegate voting powers not established in and by grass roots voters and caucuses. As a matter of fact these Super Delegates in their final voting may elect a delegate having nothing to do with their back-home caucuse and constituent voting.

This Super Delegate scheme is simply a method of making sure the (right) candidate is selected to represent the 'machine', rather than some rabble-rouser selected by grass-roots constituents. This will ensure that despite the grass roots wanting to vote candidates into Office similar to the 2004 election to end the Crimes Against Humanity in Iraq, the DEM-heirarchy like Nancy Peloise and DEM heirarchy instead ended up kissing the Bush-Admin ass.

Look into this 'Super Delegate' scheme, you tell me if this will make a government of the people, by the people, and for the people? Or is this a case where corrupt individuals have taken over our government for Pork/PAC/Perk/Payola benefits given by a wealthy elite who control (entirely) this nation?

Dennis Slough - 2/13/2008

M H *did* say Obama authored 152 as a Senator, considerably more than Clinton's 20 and they also seem more substantive. But, you have a point about "passed." M H did not mention how many were passed, which is an important factor in deciding who can get things done. Yet, I'm very impressed with the volume of legislation he's managed to initiate into the process, and I know from other reading he was very successful in IL getting laws passed.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/12/2008

On its face this looks like a false comparison. Bills authored and passed is going to be a much smaller number than bills sponsored or cosponsored.

Perhaps a futher breakdown would still show Obama to be stronger, but the case is not made here.

Richard P McDonough - 2/10/2008

I think MH's comment most useful. And going to the public record ...I love rhetoric and am impressed with Obama, but facts are useful, yes?... is essential. The major point to date for me is the failure of the national health care proposal due to imperfect grasp of the politics of legislation, ad the success of child health care provisions in Illinois because of the understanding of political realities. Combining rhetoric with success in legislation is of great interest to e.

M H - 2/10/2008

The other issue not mentioned in this article is the fact that even if all of Hilary Clinton's years could rightly be fully claimed, she has failed to exercise it with anywhere near the diligence that Obama has.
In her six years in Senate she has managed to author and pass into law only 20 pieces of legislation, most of which were completely and utterly unsubstantial, (e.g. the naming of buildings).
In fact, only five of them had any substance at all:
- Extend period of unemployment assistance to victims of 9/11.
- Pay for city projects in response to 9/11
- Assist landmine victims in other countries.
- Assist family caregivers in accessing affordable respite care.
- Designate part of the National Forest System in Puerto Rico as protected in the wilderness preservation system.

Obama on the other hand has sponsored over 820 bills in his career, with his Senate career including 152 authored and another 427 co-sponsored.
Obviously not enough room to post all of them here but the breakdown is as follows:
233 regarding healthcare reform,
125 on poverty and public assistance,
112 crime fighting bills,
97 economic bills,
60 human rights and anti-discrimination bills,
21 ethics reform bills,
15 gun control,
6 veterans affairs and many others

Anyone wishing to dig further need look no further than the Library of Congress where all Senate bills are a matter of public record: