In a podcast interview last summer, Barack Obama lamented his lack of experience while serving as president. He didn’t do badly, but if he served a third term, he told Marc Maron, he would be better because he’d “screwed up enough times” and now “I know what I’m doing and I’m fearless … I’ve been through this.”
Mr. Obama is one of a batch of recent presidents and prime ministers who came to office inexperienced and underqualified. They’ve required too much on-the-job training. Their populations have paid a price.
Joe Biden, the oldest and most experienced president in the history of his country, marks a sharp break with recent history. He is in a position to re-establish the importance of pedigree, the idea that if you’re set on occupying the most important position in the land, maybe you should have suitable credentials.
Mr. Obama, who served in the Illinois legislature, hadn’t even completed one Senate term in Washington before running for president.
Donald Trump was the first president who had no political experience or public service whatsoever.
George W. Bush, who served a few years as governor of Texas after being a baseball-club owner, had nowhere near the experience of his father, who was president from 1989 to 1993. Among other missteps stemming in part from his callow, cocksure ways was his blundering into the Iraq war.
Finding three other presidents serving in succession with such modest qualifications is no small task.
In Canada, Justin Trudeau had served a few years on the opposition benches and as Liberal leader, but had no governing experience before becoming Prime Minister. He brought in a cohort of younger-generation types like himself who offered some fresh perspectives and fresh policies. But his team often excluded older pros who could have prevented embarrassing sophomoric lapses, which did not afflict Pierre Trudeau’s more veteran crew.
Likewise, Stephen Harper only had experience as an opposition member of Parliament before becoming PM. Calling himself an economist, as the brainy ideologue did, was a stretch. He was parochial, having rarely set foot outside the country before becoming leader of a G7 country.
His reign importantly addressed Western Canadian discontent. But his grounding was too narrow for him to take on statesman-like qualities. He governed with a chip on his shoulder, instead of doing so with goodwill.
The closest thing to a Joe Biden that Canada has had in terms of experience is Jean Chrétien, who served in 11 cabinet portfolios before becoming prime minister. After barely surviving a Quebec referendum vote in 1995, the Shawinigan fox, as Bob Plamondon called him in his book of that name, governed effectively. He knew the country; he had it in his bones.
Another elder statesman, Louis St. Laurent, who became PM at age 66, didn’t fare too badly either. Nor did his contemporary in the Oval Office, Dwight Eisenhower, who became president at 62 with the experience of having led the Allied forces in the Second World War. The Republican presidency deemed the most successful in modern times is that of Ronald Reagan, who didn’t take office until age 69.
Experience isn’t everything, of course. Through history, several presidents and prime ministers (such as Brian Mulroney) fared well without much of it. But the old hands have the advantage of knowing where the fault lines are.
Post-Reagan and Bush the elder, the Republicans became the anti-government party. Experienced leaders were cast as establishment insiders. It reached such mindlessness that candidates for Republican office who were educated at prestigious schools tried to camouflage such qualifications. They didn’t want to be seen as erudite.
It all culminated in the election of Mr. Trump and the gong show that ensued. Outsiders and disrupters are sometimes necessary to rattle the system and generate new thinking. His pushes for ending the endless wars, for taking on China on trade and for focusing on the working class were not without merit, but they weren’t enough to save him on election day last year.
In Canada, politics haven’t quite descended to so lowbrow a level. But there has been a dearth of experienced and learned types who have shown an interest in public office. A test will be how former Bank of England and Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney is received as he contemplates an entry into the Liberal fold. He doesn’t have hands-on political experience as such, but his kind of intellectual capital is sorely needed. With his global expertise and standing he could serve to elevate the standards.
With his half-century of experience, Joe Biden is attempting to do just that in Washington. It’s a tall task. But so far, so good.
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