As an elaboration on Telika Howards’ great article Time Magazine Declares: Barack Obama May Be Next President , published on October 18, 2006, this article will go through the history of presidential elections to look at the candidacies of relatively inexperienced politicians. Barack Obama, a former Illinois legislator and in his first term as a United States Senator, is being touted by the Democratic Party as the future of the left in America. However, the Democrats and those who advocate for Senator Obama may need to look at the mixed history of inexperienced candidates running for president.
In American history, very few candidates with legislative inexperience have won the highest office in the land. Two examples, Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor, loom large as success stores to presidential hopefuls like Barack Obama. Jackson, a hero of the War of 1812 and a relatively inexperienced Tennessee legislator, ran for the presidency in 1824 against vastly more experienced candidates like John Quincy Adams. Jackson narrowly lost that election, which was thrown to the House of Representatives due to a lack of an electoral majority, but came back to win the 1828 election on the backs of the newly founded Democratic Party. Jackson is now one of the most revered presidents in American history for his populist appeal and strong personality.
Zachary Taylor, a hero of the Mexican War, had never voted in an election until his own in 1848. Taylor refused to campaign on his own behalf and left his potential presidential agenda open to the American imagination. Perhaps his election came down to a curiosity by the American people as to what he would do in office. However, the examples of Jackson and Taylor are difficult to reconcile with the current political situation. The military experience of Jackson and Taylor was almost a prerequisite to office in the era of American expansion. As far as I know, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and many other modern politicos lack any military experience while military experiences like that of 2004 candidates John Kerry and George W. Bush was limited during the Vietnam War. Perhaps there are better examples for Barack Obama in his search for the presidency.
There have been a couple of major party candidates with little to no experience who lost elections to stronger candidates. In 1872, Republican President Ulysses Grant was challenged by newspaper publisher and former Republican supporter Horace Greeley for reelection. Greeley, who was more progressive on certain issues than Grant, ran as a Democrat from New York and his campaign was awkward from the get go. Greeley, an avowed abolitionist, spoke to Southern crowds about limiting rights for freed African Americans while Grant came off as a strong civil rights proponent during the campaign. Barack Obama certainly shouldn’t take Greeley as an example as he was defeated roundly by Grant and died before the electoral college met.
Another example similar to Greeley was the Republican candidate for president in 1916, Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes, a justice on the New York Supreme Court and a progressive on social issues, challenged popular Woodrow Wilson for a seat in the White House. However, Hughes was focused far too much on issues like women’s suffrage to trump Wilson, who promised to keep Americans out of the war raging in Europe. While Democrats promoted Wilson as the man who “Kept Us Out of War,” Republicans countered weakly that Wilson was the man who kept America “out of suffrage.” All right, so that is not such a good model for Senator Obama or other inexperienced hopefuls.
Maybe Senator Obama can look at fellow political neophytes in third parties throughout American history. After all, 1992 third party candidate Ross Perot garnered 19% of the popular vote and 2000 Green Party candidate Ralph Nader swung the election with a couple thousand votes. However, Barack doesn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars (or an eccentric personality) like Perot or the decades of grassroots activism of Nader. Perhaps the risky but intriguing path of least resistance is out of the picture of Obama, whose presidential timbre has been created by a leadership hungry Democratic Party.
My greatest fear about the Democrats rallying behind Obama this early in his career is that they have done this before with candidates with more experience. The most recent example of this is the massive flame out of Governor Howard Dean’s campaign in the 2004 Democratic primaries. Deemed by, you guessed it, Time magazine as a potentially strong presidential candidate, Dean failed to win in New Hampshire or in Iowa and gave way to the more established Democrat John Kerry. I also worry that there are other Democrats, like John Edwards and Wesley Clark, who lack a lot of political experience and will be running opposite Obama during the 2008 Democratic primaries. While new faces in the political sphere are always refreshing, the Democrats need to be patient with Barack Obama, letting him develop a strong reputation to match the hype. Party regulars like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry will be running in 2008 and Clinton seems to have an early beat on the Democratic nomination. Save the relatively young and inexperience Obama for another time, let him win reelection to his seat in 2010, and young Democrats will grow up knowing Barack Obama as the face of a rejuvenated Democratic Party.