The campaign of Herman Cain, Republican presidential candidate and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, raises the question: Can lack of political experience be a virtue? (Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST)

This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on Herman Cain and whether prior politicial experience is a prerequisite for being an effective president.

“The Presidency,” political scientist Richard Neustadt proclaimed in his classic treatise Presidential Power , “is no place for amateurs.”

But try telling that to Herman Cain’s supporters.

The former pizza mogul, who has never held elected office, jumped to the top of the polls in the Republican primary race in no small part by making a virtue of his lack of political experience. “I’m not a professional politician,” Cain repeatedly boasts on the stump, to huge applause. “I’m a professional problem solver.”

But can a political neophyte really be an effective president, especially at a time when strong-willed career politicians are even more intensely polarized? New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie doesn’t think so. In declining to run for president, he said, "I am not arrogant enough to believe that after one year as governor...I am ready to be president of the United States." Instead, he endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, citing both Romney’s private and public sector experience.

Before dismissing Cain’s candidacy, however, it is worth remembering that Neustadt’s reference to “amateurs” was a thinly veiled shot at Dwight David Eisenhower—a president, Neustadt suggested, whose lack of political experience prevented him from fully using the levers of presidential power. Since Neustadt first leveled this charge in 1960, Eisenhower’s historical stock has risen, fueled in no small part by the dismal performance of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, two of the more seasoned politicos who followed him into office. In comparison, the eight years of relative peace and prosperity under Eisenhower began to take on a new sheen.

The debate regarding what experiences are a prerequisite for presidential effectiveness is nothing new. Writing in Federalist Paper #72, Alexander Hamilton cites “the adage of truth” that “experience is the parent of wisdom.” Extolling the virtues of experience, however, does not tell us which ones best prepare for the presidency. In fact, Hamilton praises experience to buttress his opposition to presidential term limits; he suggests that the best preparation for the presidency is to have already served.

Before we take this as an endorsement of Barack Obama’s reelection bid, note that the modern historical record is littered with the wreckage of second-term presidents who—through political miscalculation and the hubris born of electoral success—embroiled the nation in some of its worst political controversies. These include Franklin D. Roosevelt’s failed court-packing scheme, Nixon’s Watergate cover-up, Reagan’s Iran-contra affair and Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal. Obviously, even presidential experience is no guarantee of effective leadership.

And so, the question remains. What experiences should we look for in a presidential candidate? The answer depends on what we want from the presidency itself. Specifically, voters may deem a candidate’s inexperience, or at least a lack of ties to the professional political class, to be a virtue when they seek to change political direction.

Even here, however, events may turn judgments regarding candidates’ qualifications on their head. During the tightly contested 2008 Democratic nomination race, Hillary Clinton, seeking to paint Obama as a political novice who lacked foreign policy experience, ran her celebrated 3 a.m. phone call ad. John McCain picked up on this theme during the general election by repeatedly contrasting his years of political and military service to Obama’s much thinner resume. Most voters, however, weren’t seeking experience so much as a new direction in the nation’s politics.

It is thus no small irony that three years into Obama’s presidency, voters appear to be seeking change again. The Candidate of Change, after all, has become in large part the President of Continuity. The strongest portion of Obama’s record, many would argue, is not how much he’s changed Washington, but his foreign policy accomplishments, many of which build off of his predecessor’s administration.

If this is another change election, then is Herman Cain, by virtue of his less traditional background, prepared to bring that change? And if so, is he ready to be president? Of course not. But then, no one ever is. In truth, the presidency is, in most respects, sui generis; no prior jobs can truly prepare one for the position.

But if biography can mislead, it doesn’t mean we should simply ignore it. Here, I think, Neustadt had it right after all. He ends the first edition of his classic work with these words: “If we want Presidents fully alive and useful, we shall have to pick them from among experienced politicians of extraordinary temperament.” Biography is useful for what it reveals about a candidate’s values, judgments and, most critically, their core convictions.

History teaches that all presidents will be faced with making difficult decisions under conditions of extreme uncertainty, on issues that often have momentous consequences for the nation, and in the face of conflicting advice from experts. How can we be sure the president will, in times of duress, sort through the conflicting evidence and advice to make the right decision? The answer, I think, depends less on what presidents have done in the years before reaching the Oval Office, and more on how they have done it—and why. 

Matthew Dickinson is a professor of political science at Middlebury College, where he writes the Presidential Power blog. He is also the author of Bitter Harvest: FDR, Presidential Power, and the Growth of the Presidential Branch .

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