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August 29, 2008



What makes someone qualified to be President exactly? What makes someone qualified to even run for President without being labeled "arrogant"? Personally, I think a Harvard law degree, 12 years experience teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago, 8 years in the Illinois Senate, and 3 years in the US Senate is pretty darned good qualifications, and certainly more than Bush Jr. or Reagan ever had. Does Nathan require a candidate to have been a Governor or a Senior US Senator?

Obama was not fortunate enough to be a trust-fund baby, to have connections bring him to where he is today. Everything he is and where he is was the result of his own talents and hard work. There's not many people that can say they went from nothing to President of the United States, and I don't think he should have to apologize for running before he met the arbitrary criteria of random bloggers.

Nathan Smith

What qualifications are necessary to justify a person running for president? Preferably:
(1) Executive experience;
(2) National-level political experience;

It should sum to 10+ years of high-level, i.e., gubernatorial, senatorial, or Cabinet experience. Congressman doesn't cut much ice. (The federal House of Representatives, that is. Until Obama showed up, I don't think it ever crossed anyone's mind that any state legislative office cut any ice at all.)

A Harvard education is fine. A plus, even. But it should be a footnote in a resume. If it has to be mentioned prominently in one's qualifications, that's a problem.

12 years' experience teaching con law is a small qualification. But what's bad is that Obama produced no scholarship in that time. Scholarship is what con law profs are supposed to do.

Which leads to another point: the list of posts Obama has held are inadequate, but, worse, he hasn't done anything of note in those posts. No scholarship. No legislation. The most "present" votes of anyone in the Senate. Nothing in his resume shows he can get stuff done. Except write books about himself and run a campaign.

Joyless Moralist

"Which leads to another point: the list of posts Obama has held are inadequate, but, worse, he hasn't done anything of note in those posts. No scholarship. No legislation. The most "present" votes of anyone in the Senate. Nothing in his resume shows he can get stuff done. Except write books about himself and run a campaign."

Exactly. Well said. I appreciated you clarifying the definition of accolades, Tom, but I still don't really see it. People keep trotting out Harvard Law and being on law review as signs of great achievement. So he has a Harvard Law degree? Big deal. They pass out 500 of those every year. It's a fine place to start but it ought to be the beginning; by a decade later it should no longer be worth talking about. Law review is largely a popularity contest, and definitely not an "image-free" form of achievement; it mainly involves getting the older students to like you. As for teaching at Chicago, Obama was never a serious academic of any kind; teaching for eight years without any real scholarly output should be more an embarrassment than a boast. And, I hate to be the one to mention this, but being a minority is a *substantial* help in getting a prestigious academic post. I can say this frankly because I enjoy similar benefits (if perhaps less extreme) as a woman in philosophy. So, it doesn't mean that I don't respect minorities in academia -- I can wait and judge people on their scholarship -- but it does diminish the impressiveness of merely GETTING the position.

Obama clearly knows how to create an image and win over a crowd. Nothing in his background evidences any other special talent.

Joyless Moralist

Sorry, I made a small mistake. That's TWELVE years teaching at Chicago with no real scholarship.


"It should sum to 10+ years of high-level, i.e., gubernatorial, senatorial, or Cabinet experience"

Reagan first contemplated running for president in '68, after having been governor for about a year. Then he ran again in '76, still with less than 10 years elected experience. Pretty presumptuous. Good thing we didn't elect that inspiring but vacuous fellow. I just don't see what people saw in him; since his ethical schema don't coincide with mine, I'm going to deny that he had one, so I won't accept any special pleading as to why he could have been exempted from the "decade plus rule." Which we should probably add to the Constitution, to avoid these sorts of arguments.

Joyless Moralist

"Ethical schema"?

What is that? Sounds scary.


So Nathan would prefer a soccer mom over a Harvard educated law professor as long as she won two elections for Governor or US Senate? Frankly, winning a couple state elections does not mean squat; it's not an indicator of quality or skill. Certainly gaining the experience is politically useful, but I would much rather have people who have focused on academics rule the country than people who have focused on politics/getting elected.


Perhaps "moral frame of reference" works better.


I would actually say that winning elections is an indicator of quality and skill, though merely a heuristic one. What qualities and skills it indicates is a little ambiguous, but I would certainly have my suspicions about folks who *can't* win elections.

It is clear that a prior political victories of any particular size are neither necessary nor sufficient to guarantee a high quality candidate for PotUS.


Incidentally, it would seem that Obama was a civil rights lawyer as well as a state senator at the same time as he was a Lecturer/Senior Lecturer. Also, I wonder how many extra points Harvard gave Obama for being black so that he could graduate Magna Cum Laude?

Really, I'm not all that worried about his academic output.

Nathan Smith

re: Soccer mom vs. Harvard-educated law professor.

Wow, we're elitist, aren't we? I have a Masters from Harvard myself, thank you very much, and it never crossed my mind that anyone would think it's a reason I'm qualified to be president. I'm much more impressed by winning state elections. But the main point is that Palin seems to have *done an exceptionally impressive job* in all the offices she's held.

Obama's lack of scholarship is just another example of his narcissism. A humbler approach, it seems to me, would be to say, "Scholarship's my job, I better do it." And do it. If he tried and can't get published that's a different kind of problem. The point is, con law prof was his job, and if he didn't get published, he wasn't doing it very well.

But even if Obama were a young star of the legal academy, I still would give that very little weight.


Some might think that a primary role of a professor would be to educate. Yes, a career academic might also be expected to produce a certain amount of scholarship, but it seems evident that Obama has had several concurrent careers. If he educated well, it would seem he did do his job.

Nathan Smith

re: "Some might think that a primary role of a professor would be to educate."

That's what all professors who can't do scholarship say.

re: "it seems evident that Obama has had several concurrent careers..."

Which is also, I think, why Obama hasn't drafted or authored any significant legislation during his time in the Senate.

Obama is too busy using each job as a stepping-stone to do it well. Palin, by contrast, seems to have made the jobs she's held bigger by how well she's done them. Like McCain.


So Palin made being Mayor of a town with 30% the population of my zip code "bigger?" That wouldn't take much.

Also, her state has 89% as many residents as my city. Perhaps Kerry should have selected Gavin Newsom for running mate in 2004; he had more experience wielding more political control over a larger polity than Palin. He also was highly popular and was considered to have done much to turn around San Francisco after the dotcom bust. Perhaps Obama should have seriously considered him as a running mate this year! Newsom was reelected with 72% of the vote in '07 and actually has some foreign policy experience by virtue of San Francisco's involvement with international trade and environmental organizations.

Oh, and Illinois State senators represent approximately 218,000 people each, almost a third the size of Alaska.

So, if Palin has made much of the governorship of a state that would qualify as the nation's 18th largest city, with a GDP about half that of Pittsburg's, then I suppose I'm pretty impressed. Other than McCain naming her for VP, though, I'm not sure what she's done that has made her position as governor of AK so much bigger. Certainly I was far more familiar with AK's senators Stevens and Murkowski*. The latter especially would have been a better choice. But I suppose Murkoski would have gotten McCain in trouble with Pro-Life backers.

Honestly, I don't know what the heck McCain was thinking. It's just such an unserious choice. I mean, really, *Palin* was the best choice? And how did he decide this, after apparently having barely met her? It's such a purely political decision it takes my breath away.

The best thing I can say about her is that at least she's self-made, having never had the patronage of Admirals to see her through an infamous academic career or an exceedingly rich father-in-law to relieve her of any fiscal concerns.

*Whose proportional population representation (2% of the US) would work out to almost ten times the population of AK.


"Wow, we're elitist, aren't we?"

No, Nathan, it's called having standards, getting the right person for the right job. Soccer moms are great, but I don't want them being in charge of the country unless they're also highly educated and skilled. My company would never have hired me if I didn't have the qualifications necessary to do the job. You're basically saying the only qualification necessary to be President is winning a highly polarized popularity contest in a state, and you're completely discounting education and certain kinds of relevant work experience. That's not smart business, and that's not smart voting.

I don't exactly know why you don't want to give Obama any credit, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it's because he's a Democrat instead of a Republican.

Nathan Smith

re: "You're basically saying the only qualification necessary to be President is winning a highly polarized popularity contest in a state..."

Obviously you just don't know enough about Palin. I don't know that much either, but I know enough to know that's just silly. She's DONE a lot of stuff, more than Obama in practical/real terms. "Educated." She's got a degree from the University of Idaho, as far as I know. Postgraduate education is a plus, not a huge one. For a political job I don't give Harvard a big premium over U of Idaho. For an academic job I would, of course.

I really am a bit taken aback by Tom's reverence for Harvard. I'd always thought he was such an iconoclast.


I'm going to speculate that it takes harder work and a more agile mind to excel at Harvard than U of I. I want a hard-working, mentally-agile president.

Nathan Smith

"Certainly I was far more familiar with AK's senators Stevens and Murkowski*."

Stevens and Murkowski are a disgrace. Stevens is famous for the Bridge to Nowhere project. Murkowski named his daughter to a Senate seat as far as I remember. Palin sunk the Bridge to Nowhere project and beat Murkowski for the governorship. Palin cleaned out Alaska politics. She's the Anti-Stevens, the Anti-Murkowski. She stood up to the good-old-boy network and won. This is the reason for the pick. She's McCain's political soulmate.

How did she make the AK governorship bigger? Not literally of course. The Bridge to Nowhere was a national issue because it was the symbol of runaway porkbarrel spending. It was publicized as such. Everyone knew it was a disgrace. And it still became law. And then Palin nixed it, even though it helped her state. She put America before Alaska greedily exploiting its over-representation due to a constitutional quirk. Why? Why didn't she let herself get sucked into Alaska's corruption? Because she's an ordinary person with ordinary decency. The type you don't see that much in politics.

And another reason: she's working on a pipeline to get Alaska's natural gas to the US. Just like Maverick was the biggest pusher of the surge when he was still in the senate-- his political stature for the past couple of years has rivaled Bush's despite his lesser office-- Palin is already trying to solve THE NATION's problems when she's only a governor.

Look, you guys may be right. She may turn out not to be ready for the VP spot. But I can definitely see why McCain picked her. There's a compelling story here, a story that's a really striking for what McCain believes in, for his principles, values, character. I don't know all the details, but I can see enough of the outline of the story to understand the excitement that is sweeping through a lot of the country.


I'm not attacking Palin as much as I'm defending Obama. I actually think picking Palin was an excellent maneuver on McCain's part. I don't think she's the best person for the job, but she's certainly better than some of the other options. I'm sure she would make a capable Vice President, in the mold of Dan Quayle.

I don't actually have much reverence for Harvard, mostly because I don't have any personal experience at that school. But as universities go, I hear it's alright. I don't think there's a big difference between Harvard and other top-tier schools, but there is a big difference between top-tier schools and, say, smallish state schools. On one side, you're being taught by Nobel Laureates and other world-renowned thinkers. On the other side, you're being taught by people who couldn't cut it anywhere else. The funding for research and facilities is also quite different.


"Palin is already trying to solve THE NATION's problems when she's only a governor."

How arrogant of her!

Joyless Moralist

You can judge a lot from what you do with what you've got. Obama graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard Law. Bully for him. I personally know two people who graduated Summa from the same school, as well as a couple who graduated from Yale, which is more selective. But who's counting? I'm perfectly prepared to concede that the guy has above-average intelligence.

That might be enough to make you the Golden Boy of, say, your neighborhood. It marks you out as somebody pretty smart with a good work ethic. But it's nothing extraordinarily special. Lots of people climb that high. And nothing that Obama's done since then has much more "wow" to it than what he did at Harvard Law. You might think getting chosen for the Chicago job was a real honor, but frankly, as a minority with a prestigious law degree, I suspect that way would have been pretty paved. And then, once installed at Chicago, that was an opportunity to really shine, to show that he was somebody special. He didn't.

Getting elected to the Senate does obviously count for something, but then, we have 100 of those too. And again, no special accomplishments.

I think what needs to be examined here are the different expectations. The bar is set much higher for Obama. If I agreed that Sarah Palin and Barack Obama are equally remarkable (not saying that I do), would that satisfy you? Of course not. You want to contend that he's somebody really special, while she's some random yokel totally unqualified for her job. That's what seems far-fetched. Of course Obama's done pretty well for himself, all things considered. His parents, if they were still living, could certainly be excused for bragging a little. But there's nothing about him that should have the rest of us in awe, which is what he (and the rest of the party) seem to expect. I can name without any special effort a dozen people I personally know whose life accomplishments seem more impressive.

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin has been a small-timer up through now, but she's a small-timer who's done very well, and, which is what people really love about her, showed a real strength and integrity. Is she ready for the big leagues? Hard to say; I guess we'll see. But thus far she's looked pretty good, so snickering about her University of Idaho degree just seems rather petty.


Just a note: Frank Murkowski was the former governor Palin beat. He appointed his daughter, Senator Murkowski, in '02 but she was subsequently reelected by a large margin in '04.

I will grant that Palin is by a very "clean" candidate, especially relative to the endemic corruption of AK politics, and that would certainly be a good narrative for McCain.


BTW, I just don't understand the expectation that Obama would be some kind of giant in the field of Con Law while he was also a practicing lawyer, a state senator, and either on the board or founder of various organizations. He also had several state legislative achievements of which he could boast, including stiffening mortgage lending laws, guiding landmark anti-profiling and confession-taping rules to passage, and, of course, increased ethics rules. He has little to show for his time in the 109th congress, which places him with pretty much every other democrat in that GOP-controlled Congress under a GOP president, but he did get bills he introduced or sponsored passed in the 110th.


Obama is not "special". Fine, depending on the definition, I agree. But who is special? Is McCain significantly more special than Obama? The idea is laughable to me. You guys devalue everything Obama has done, and at the same time set your own chosen candidates on a pedestal. It wreaks of partisanship and hypocrisy. I'm not even going to vote for Obama (I'm voting 3rd-party), but I just can't stand it when people tear someone down because they're on a different team or have a different opinion. Obama is a fine candidate, one of the best the Democrats have ever offered. I liked McCain a lot too before his vile and putrid attacks against Obama made me sick of him and his whole party. In the grand scheme of things, I'm sure they would both perform the duties of President admirably, so I don't see the need to belittle.

And by the way, I was never intending to belittle Palin or her education or the University of Idaho. All of the perceived attacks on her were projections from your own psyche. Look through all of my comments and you will not see one single thing negative I said about her. I was contrasting Obama's accomplishments with a strawman candidate that Nathan would seemingly support based on his criteria. Is it my fault that when I said "soccer mom" you immediately thought of Palin? Is it my fault that when I referred to a lesser education you immediately thought of the University of Idaho? Do not lay your own biases at my feet, thank you.

Joyless Moralist

I don't think I'm particularly partisan -- I have no great love for the GOP -- and I definitely don't idolize either McCain or Palin. My VOTE is, of course, determined by what I think and by which candidate best represents the views that I think are right. If a young, inexperienced Harvard Law grad with three years in the Senate were to be the GOP candidate, supporting a platform that matches sufficiently well my own views, would I vote for him? I imagine so. If a "soccer mom" with five kids and a nice gun rack were to run as a pro-choice, pro-welfare, anti-military Democrat, would I vote for her? No. Insofar as I've defended her, it's only because many people, including on this blog, have indicated in no uncertain terms that she is underqualified for office, especially for reasons of education. And I don't know that that's quite fair.

But yes, a great many people, including you, Tom, have been laying down quite a bit of this "oh, what an amazing, rare, talented individual" stuff. I could have bought "pretty smart guy with a great voice and a way with people." If you think that's a reasonable assessment, then fine, no more reason to argue.

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