Now that organizing for the 2008 presidential cycle is upon us, Democrats need to take a sober look at how the flavor-of-the-month, Sen. Barack Obama, stacks up with their party’s frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Obama is a broadly attractive candidate whose impressive communication skills could, after more experience in Washington and abroad, enable him to fare better in the Oval Office than most of his predecessors.
At present, however, he has completed only two years of service in the U.S. Senate, prior to which he spent eight years as a state senator in Illinois. Such credentials may melt snow in Iowa and New Hampshire, but will not chip the ice in the hearts of some of those with whom an inhabitant of the Oval Office must deal. Nor does it seem likely that Obama’s limited experience in the ways of Washington or the world would effectively double by the 2008 elections if he spends most of the next two years in pursuit of primary votes.
The burning question, then, is why take Obama’s training wheels off so soon when there already is a president-in-waiting whose preparation for the office is beyond compare, as even those who dislike her so intensely must admit?
When Obama graduated from law school in 1992, Sen. Clinton, even today not yet 60 years old, already had served as first lady of Arkansas for 12 years and was a major player in her husband’s campaign for president.
By November 2008, Sen. Clinton will have completed almost eight years in the United States Senate — twice as long as Sen. Obama at that point — and will not have spent approximately half her tenure away from Capitol Hill running for president.
Far more important, however, is her experience during eight years in the White House as first lady, and unquestionably one of the most influential figures in that White House. In November 1993, while Obama was figuring out how to practice law in downtown Chicago, Mrs. Clinton was present when the president and Ambassador Strobe Talbott discussed whether the Clinton administration should align itself with President Boris Yeltsin versus anti-democratic forces in Russia. Many in Congress and in the White House, including George Stephanopoulos, regarded Yeltsin’s tottering, fledgling democracy as doomed and counseled Clinton against tying himself too closely to Yeltsin. Talbott writes that Mrs. Clinton, however, argued that “Before we give up on Russia, we should look at Taiwan, or South Korea,” which had undergone their own long transitions to democracy. The president concurred.
In 1995, when Obama was still practicing civil rights law, Clinton launched what eventually became an entirely new strand of American foreign policy when she insisted at the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing that “women’s rights” must begin to be included as an integral part of the “human rights” agenda in global diplomatic dialogue.
In 1996, when Obama was getting himself elected to his first term in the Illinois legislature, Clinton was having time alone with then-opposition leader Tony Blair during the latter’s first visit to the White House. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams writes that Clinton was “an avid supporter” of the Northern Ireland peace process who “on a number of occasions … sat in for discussions between us and the president. … She was to bring a singular contribution to the process on the issue of empowerment of women but in my engagements with her it was obvious that her mind was busy on all the issues that required attention.”
By Bill Clinton’s second term (1997-2001), when Obama was a freshman legislator in the Illinois statehouse, First Lady Clinton had come to be viewed as an international player, both overseas and at home. She not only served as a back channel between the president and Middle Eastern leaders through her ties with the wives of the latter, but also for heads of state such as Jacques Chirac of France and Italy’s Massimo D’Alema, who contacted her behind the scenes to convey to the president the support for having NATO troops on the ground in the Balkans that they could not express in public for domestic political reasons.
Today, Hillary Clinton’s human rights for women agenda continues to be an important foreign policy emphasis in the Bush administration.
Very few U.S. presidents can be said to have introduced any such new or lasting doctrine in American foreign policy, and fewer still can be said to have introduced any doctrine that earned a positive global response, lately, to American reach and power. Hillary Clinton, however, seems already to have done so — not altogether surprising, given that during her White House years she made more than 40 trips abroad visiting 83 countries.
Neither Obama nor any other 2008 presidential candidate in either party can lay claim to such a level of global experience, know-how and connections. Why settle for starter kits when a deluxe model is available?
Dr. Gary D. Wekkin is professor of political science at the University of Central Arkansas, where he has written about presidential selection since the publication of “Democrat versus Democrat” in 1984.