The last senator elected president of the United States was John F. Kennedy in 1960. The only other senators since Kennedy to go on to become president held other offices after serving in the Senate: Lyndon Johnson was Kennedy’s vice president, and Richard Nixon had been Eisenhower’s vice president and his party’s nominee for president in 1960. Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush II were governors; Ford and Bush I were congressmen who became vice presidents. Perhaps this is scant evidence, but I think that senators make bad presidential candidates and that voters do not like them, especially in today’s media environment.
Senators have a number of problems. First, they have voting records, and no matter what your voting record is, it’s always bad. Ads often criticize a given vote without specifying the circumstances under which it was cast; attempts to clear up misinformation afterward are usually less significant than the damage done by the initial attack. Second, they talk like senators (Exhibit A: John Kerry). As Stephen Colbert might say, they think with their brains instead of their guts. Third, if they are good senators — which most aren’t — they can point to laws that they have passed, but even these rarely translate into gains at the polls.
The advantage that senators have is their knowledge of nationally important issues, and, with 24-hour cable news, their impressive national profiles. On the other hand, governors have an automatic appeal because they do the same thing presidents do, just on a smaller scale: They run a very large organization with a massive budget and execute laws. Most importantly, they make decisions for which they are accountable every day. They are not permitted the same room to equivocate as senators, who can vote for a bill and then vote against it.
Enter Barack Obama. Democrats love him for a lot of good reasons. What he says is a lot more interesting than most of the spin coming from the rest of his party. He seems to like, understand and empathize with real people. He’s very, very smart, and his rhetoric, at least, is pretty progressive. He’s got no baggage on the war, and nothing of what is wrong with the country can plausibly be considered his fault. He doesn’t inspire vitriol from the right.
On the other hand, let us keep in mind his accomplishments. He was a state senator from Illinois for a few years, and then he won a Senate race in 2004 against an incumbent whose strip-club scandals prevented him from holding onto his seat. Since then, he has been in a minority party whose wins can include only efforts to stop Republicans from eviscerating what little is left of a social safety net. Were he to begin a campaign for president in the middle of 2007, he would be faced with a very legitimate question: “What have you done that qualifies you to be president of the United States?”
Objectors will have a fair point when they argue that many individuals who have run for president have been in that same boat, most recently John Edwards. True, but Edwards was two years further along than Obama and had served during a Democratic presidency. Nevertheless, Obama may be looking to Edwards for inspiration here: Edwards was short on accomplishments but long on charisma, and his perceived voter appeal helped him land his party’s nomination for vice president. Though he did not help the Democrats carry a single state in 2004 and was almost guaranteed to lose a bid for re-election in North Carolina, Edwards is currently considered a credible presidential candidate in 2008. Obama must be thinking that, if he plays his cards right and doesn’t piss off the wrong people, he could position himself to be the No. 2 on a very strong Democratic ticket in 2008. And if his campaign does not take off, no harm, he can go back to his comfy Illinois seat, which he will not have to defend until 2010.
Still, I say he shouldn’t run. Unless he is willing to mount a challenge to Hillary Clinton from the left (and nothing he has said has suggested he would), he will have a very hard time outmaneuvering her in the primary. I don’t like the idea of people running for president just because they are smart and popular. I want someone who has dealt with at least the types of problems that a president does. He should run for governor, prove how good he is at getting things done, and then mount a frontrunner campaign for president as a candidate with both national appeal and executive experience. Furthermore, if he runs for president, he will do little or nothing in the Senate from the beginning of 2007 until the end of 2008, which could be a lost opportunity if Democrats reclaim the Senate. Unlike John Edwards, he doesn’t need to run for president to develop a national profile; no one is going to forget who Barack Obama is any time soon. He’s young and he has a bright future, but he should prove his mettle before he takes the plunge.
Ted Fertik is a senior in Trumbull College.