Time in Senate May Be Irrelevant if Obama Runs

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) might be well advised to stay in the Senate several more years before running for president, as many strategists have suggested. But there are at least 40 reasons to challenge that advice.

That is the number of senators who have tried, and failed, to reach the White House since Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) accomplished the feat in 1960. Nearly all of them had more Senate experience than Obama, underscoring the light regard that American voters show for senatorial longevity and expertise in presidential elections.

If Obama's aim is to become a more respected and knowledgeable senator -- in the mold of, say, Robert J. Dole (18 years in the Senate before his 1996 presidential race), Henry "Scoop" Jackson (20 Senate years before his 1972 bid) or Richard G. Lugar (20 Senate years before his 1996 try) -- it may be a laudable goal. But it's a highly questionable presidential strategy.

"The Senate historically has not been a great place from which to run for president," said former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who personally learned the lesson in 2004. "Senator Obama might feel he would be better off to run while he has not been tainted by an excessive period in the Senate."

In the nation's history, only Kennedy and Warren G. Harding have been elected directly from the Senate to the presidency. But the dismal statistics have not dissuaded dozens of senators from trying, including big names (John Glenn, Edward M. Kennedy), largely forgotten names (Larry Pressler, Carol Moseley Braun) and plenty in between.

U.S. voters repeatedly have shown a preference for governors, especially during the 52-year stretch from Grover Cleveland's first election through Franklin D. Roosevelt's fourth, and again in recent years, when seven of the past eight presidential campaigns have been won by former governors. The 2008 presidential race seems certain to focus special scrutiny on why senators with impressive résumés have fared so poorly in White House bids.

Not only did Obama cause a sensation last month by simply saying he would consider a 2008 campaign, but the early front-runners in both parties are senators: Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Perhaps no governor will emerge from the pack, as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did, and 2008 will prove the exception to the rule. But scholars of presidential campaigns have their doubts.

"I'm skeptical that a senator can make it," said Barry C. Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has written on the subject. "Just looking at the historical record, the odds are not very good."

Burden said voters generally like the executive experience of governors. Additionally, governors, more than senators, are much more able to set their own agendas, make bold decisions, and avoid complicated legislative debates and votes that opponents can exploit.

"The skills that make a person a good legislator are not the skills that make a person a good presidential candidate," Burden said. "The kind of compromises that make you successful in Congress don't make you successful in a presidential campaign."

Analysts say veteran lawmakers often are prone to legislative jargon and explanations that baffle voters. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) damaged his 2004 presidential campaign when he said of a spending package for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." Republicans ridiculed the remark, but many people on Capitol Hill understood that Kerry supported the package when it was linked to repeals of tax cuts for the wealthy and that he opposed it when the link was dropped.

As a veteran lawmaker, "you have lots of votes under your belt, which the opposition-research guys can use to twist you into a pretzel," said Scott Reed, Dole's campaign manager for his 1996 bid.

Obama, who is 45 and just two years removed from the Illinois legislature, has a third option that is less viable for McCain and Clinton. He could angle for the vice presidency, a route to the Oval Office for former senators Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon -- but not for Hubert H. Humphrey, Walter F. Mondale, Dan Quayle and Al Gore.

First, however, Obama must sift through the bountiful and conflicting advice of whether to seek the big prize now. Graham, who was Florida's governor before joining the Senate, said: "My advice would be to lay out a plan of action to have him fully ready to be president in 2013. That schedule would just about coincide with what President Kennedy did" -- that is, becoming president after eight years in the Senate.

But Reed thinks 2008 may be the year to break the senatorial jinx, in part because the primary season will be shorter. That should help front-runners such as McCain and Clinton, he said, or perhaps a shooting star such as Obama.

"The old axiom may go out the window this year," Reed said of 2008. "I'd advise Obama that if he has any interest in serving [as president], to take the race. You can't go back in this business and recapture what you had."

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