For 10 exhausting months, Americans worried that Barack Obama might be too inexperienced to serve as President. On Nov. 4, a majority of voters decided that he is in fact "ready to lead"--or at least that he had better be. This suggests that Americans know their history. When it comes to presidential success, experience isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Given the recent Sturm und Drang over the experience question, one might imagine that American Presidents have mostly followed the Johnson/Nixon model, clawing their way from House to Senate to the vice presidency before landing in the Oval Office. In truth, American presidential politics has often been a rookie's game. Some presidential newcomers have hit the ball out of the park, delivering moments of true political greatness. (Think Abraham Lincoln.) Others have offered up inning after inning of rookie mistakes.
As a group, White House rookies tend to fall into three categories. First come the military heroes--Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, Dwight Eisenhower--who ventured a leap into electoral politics only to produce lackluster administrations. (The great exception is George Washington, whose success in office remains uncontested but whose "rookie" status could hardly be helped.)
Next come the technocrats like William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover, who both arrived with long résumés of appointed posts but virtually no electoral experience. This category might also include Jimmy Carter, who despite several years in the Georgia legislature and governor's office maintained an essentially bureaucratic outlook toward White House affairs. All three proved wanting as popular leaders, unable to rally mass support for their programs. All three were limited to a single term.
In the last category are the charismatic youngsters: 42-year-old Teddy Roosevelt, 43-year-old John F. Kennedy, 46-year-old Bill Clinton. Of our many presidential rookies, they have been among the most ambitious, championing transformative programs for national change. They have also marked the presidency with their outsize personal traits: Roosevelt's masculine bluster, Kennedy's legendary charm, Clinton's much discussed indiscretions.
At 47 years old, devoid of military or appointed-office experience, Obama seems to fall most easily into the last of these categories. But it's not a perfect fit. For one thing, Obama seems to have far more self-control than Roosevelt, Kennedy and Clinton. He also has less high-level political experience. Kennedy had already served 14 years in Washington (six as a Congressman, eight as a Senator) before ascending to Camelot. Obama, as pre-Palin Republicans once enjoyed pointing out, has yet to complete his first Senate term.