Obama: Being President Makes You Better At It

Feb 6, 2012
Originally published on February 6, 2012 12:40 pm

In his interview with NBC's Matt Lauer which aired Super Bowl Sunday and Monday, President Obama was asked how he would respond to a disenchanted 2008 supporter frustrated that he didn't transform Washington.

The president acknowledged that the soaring idealism of his 2008 campaign rhetoric ran smack into the wall of reality that is the nation's highly partisan politics.

But he also coupled that truth with another, few experiences improve presidential performance like actually being president.

He said:

"This is the nature of being president. What's frustrated people is that I have not been able to force Congress to implement every aspect of what I said in 2008. Well, it turns out our founders designed a system that makes it more difficult to bring about change than I would like sometimes."

"But what we have been able to do is move in the right direction. And what I'm just going to keep on doing is plodding away, very persistent. And, you know what? One of the things about being president is you get better at it as time goes on."

Scholars of American politics have often noted that the job of U.S. president is so complex, with responsibilities so far-reaching, there really is no perfect preparation for the job.

As Richard Katz, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University put it in "Political Institutions in the United States," published in 2007:

"The presidency of the United States, combining world military and diplomatic leadership with responsibility for domestic security and governance, is a job for which there probably could be no adequate preparation..."

Even with that as a given, Katz wrote, American presidents have tended to have lighter resumes than their foreign counterparts. More Katz:

"... A review of recent incumbents suggests that American presidents come to the White House unusually ill prepared in comparison to leaders of many other countries.

"Except for George H.W. Bush, who had been vice president and held a number of appointive offices, including the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) the last president elected who had any significant experience in national government or in foreign affairs was Richard Nixon in 1972. Every other president in the last 30 years has been a former state governor. While this has given them executive experience, it means they come to the White House without experience in the most important policy areas of presidential responsibility and without experience in dealing with Congress."

Worth noting is that Katz goes on to say that U.S. senators have exposure to the range of national and foreign policy questions a president is likely to confront.

Senators have a different problem, however, typically a record with controversial votes that can hurt their chances of gaining the White House. That explains why you must go back to 1960 and John F. Kennedy to find the last sitting senator elected president before Obama.

In any event, the implied message of Obama's statement about getting better in the job of president is that he's already way up on the learning curve. Why should voters elect someone else who will only have to start from scratch learning on the job what it means to be president. It's the old why-change-horses-in-midstream argument.

Mitt Romney, the Republican most likely to be his party's presidential nominee at this point, is pitching his experience as a leader in the private sector as his strongest argument for why he and not Obama should be president.

But the former Massachusetts governor has no foreign policy experience to speak of. And while he has experience as chief executive of the private-equity firm Bain Capital, his relative lack of macroeconomic experience mirrors the slightness of his resume on national security.

It's just another example of how Obama has his incumbency working for him and how the challenge facing Romney or whoever becomes the GOP nominee, will be to change that advantage of Obama's into a liability.

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