Obama takes office betting on best and brightest

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  Jan. 20, 2009 at 1:08 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- Barack Obama took office Tuesday as the 44th president of the United States with the most inexperienced background in 88 years since Warren G. Harding, but that may turn out to be a good thing.

For Harding, contrary to Conventional Wisdom, was a great success, and Obama has a lot of the best things going for him that the underrated Harding had, too.

Obama has served only four years in the U.S. Senate, considerably less than Harding or John F. Kennedy, the new president's personal hero. JFK had been senator for only eight years when he was elected and Harding only six. Obama will be the first president of the United States who had previously served in the Senate never to complete a single six-year term of office there.

However, Obama's lack of experience in the Senate so far has proved highly beneficial to him. The longer politicians serve in the Senate, the more ineffective they become as national presidential candidates. Obama decisively defeated Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., to win the Democratic presidential nomination and then defeated Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., decisively in the national election.

Despite 16 years of experience in the White House and Senate as the most politically engaged and powerful first lady in American history and then as senator from New York, the campaign Clinton put together was a chaotic shambles that managed to blow huge expectations of victory and a war chest of a quarter of a billion dollars.

McCain, after 22 years in the Senate and a serious run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, chose a neophyte vice presidential running mate in Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. He also proved economically illiterate when the great Wall Street meltdown and ensuing global economic crisis erupted in September. It was McCain's extraordinary economic and fiscal ignorance and complacency that doomed him to decisive defeat after he had been catching up with Obama on other issues.

Harding is conventionally dismissed by historians as being naive and unsuited for the job. In fact, he was an exceptionally hardworking and diligent president. He did make a couple of disastrous appointments, including his attorney general, Harry Daugherty, who was at the center of a plot that stole the entire U.S. Navy's fuel reserve in a geological layer at Teapot Dome, Wyo.

However, Harding's major Cabinet appointments were simply outstanding. His treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, in a few months cleared up the ferocious 1920 economic depression -- it was far worse than any recession -- inherited from President Woodrow Wilson. His secretary of state, Charles Evans Hughes, orchestrated the end of expensive arms races with Japan and Britain at the 1921 Washington Naval Conference and later served with distinction as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Also, Harding and Mellon proved excellent internationalists by pushing successfully for low-interest-rate loans to rebuild the shattered nations of Europe after World War I.

Harding also had the best record on civil rights of any president between Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower. He reintegrated the federal government that the racist Wilson had purged of black officials. And he restored the principles of due process and the rule of law to a Department of Justice that had been discredited by the Palmer Raids in the red-hunting hysteria of 1919.

Many of Harding's better parallels with Obama are uncanny. For Obama now inherits the aftermath of an unpopular war, just as Harding did, and one of the most ominous economic crises in American history, as Harding did, too. Obama also faces the challenge of defusing arms race tensions with the other great supreme military and naval power in the world -- Russia today, just as it was the British Empire for Harding.

Further, Obama and Eric Holder, his choice as attorney general, know they must restore the constitutional credibility of the Department of Justice and the U.S. legal system, just as Harding had to do in 1921.

Obama, also, has shown his confidence in appointing Cabinet members and heads of major departments of the U.S. government who are vastly more experienced than he is. In doing this, the new president is consciously following the example of another of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln, but that is what Harding did as well.

Harding promised a return to "normalcy," the stability, widespread prosperity and strong industrial and economic growth that had characterized the Progressive Era in the 16 years of Republican presidents from 1897 to 1913. Obama has committed to restoring economic stability and prosperity and renewing hope in the American Dream.

Today, Obama is revered and Harding is forgotten. Yet Harding successfully delivered on all his major aims before dying in office of overwork and heart disease in 1923. His funeral was the greatest outpouring of national grief for any U.S. president who died in office between Lincoln in 1865 and Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. Obama, if anything, faces even more sobering challenges. More than 300 million Americans pray for his success in meeting them.

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