Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"The Leadership Divide"

Matt Bai (NY Times political blog "The Caucus"):
Since a lot of you have asked how the recent Clinton-Obama feud is playing out on the ground here in Iowa, let me offer one more post on the subject before moving on to other things.
Barack Obama held a very unusual kind of event here in Des Moines yesterday, over at the Holiday Inn. Several of his top foreign policy advisers gathered to have what the moderator called “a candid conversation” about the next president’s challenges, although all they really did was take turns telling the voters how ready Obama was to lead the world. Then Mr. Obama himself came out and answered some good foreign policy questions in a halting manner that made me think he still isn’t terribly comfortable on that ground.

A banner on the dais read “Judgment to Lead.” The theme of the day was that the presidency was about more than just experience. “A long resume doesn’t guarantee good judgment,” is how Mr. Obama himself put it.

For all the back and forth between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Obama here (a dynamic that, as my colleague Adam Nagourney points out today, may well help John Edwards), this is the defining difference that’s emerged. It’s not about foreign policy or domestic policy, or what qualifies as experience and what doesn’t. It’s really about the source of leadership — whether leadership as a skill is crafted or innate. Mrs. Clinton argues that you learn to lead by making big decisions (or, in her case, at least being proximate to them). Mr. Obama would have us believe that you are born with the qualities of leadership and that they can be honed by any number of life experiences that may have nothing to do with the specific task at hand. He got some support in this notion yesterday from another of my very smart colleagues, David Brooks, who made the case that while Mrs. Clinton may be a better senator, Mr. Obama seems to him like a more intuitive leader.

What’s interesting about this debate is that you probably couldn’t have even had it 20 or 30 years ago. I mean, sure, John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were all attacked as too inexperienced to lead, but all had considerably more political experience than Mr. Obama, and none could have reasonably tried to blunt those attacks by shrugging and saying: “Yeah, so what?” which is effectively what Mr. Obama has done. America has changed. For better or worse, the link between experience and leadership is now more tenuous, not just in politics but in everything. Why?

Well, for one thing, we’re no longer a society where workers apprentice or where men automatically go to work in their father’s business, or where anyone even stays in a single industry for his entire career. By the standards of the industrial age, we’re dilettantes; we reinvent ourselves constantly, and we expect to be taken seriously. This wasn’t true for our parents and grandparents, who lived their entire professional lives in deep and narrow grooves. We’re far more responsive to the idea that what you are is more important than what you learn.

But the Internet has a lot to do with this, too. More and more, we are, as a blogger friend of mine likes to say, “our own experts.” (Yes, I have some blogger friends.) Most of you commenting on this blog have probably never set foot in Iowa, but you have as much confidence in your own political insights as you do in those you read in The Times. I’ve never put on a professional baseball uniform or run a business, but most days I am reasonably certain that I could run the Yankees better than the Steinbrenners do. Barack Obama himself alluded to this mindset during his appearance yesterday, when he said he explicitly rejected “the idea that foreign policy is some ivory tower exercise that Americans can’t understand.”

At the risk of triangulating, I think you could make a case that it would be awfully nice to have a leader who is both practiced and intuitive. But this question of where leadership comes from is a worthy one for people to think about. A presidential campaign can certainly turn on a lot less ennobling issues — like, say, the meaning of Mormonism, or a weird middle name.
Howie P.S.: I spent several days in Iowa in 2004 around the caucus there and I can tell you nobody knows for what sure what the hell is going to happen. They take their time to decide in Iowa, I'll say that.

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