In the run up to the 2016 Presidential election, the one thing that is getting clearer by the minute is that the country is tired of “professional” politicians like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. This fatigue is probably for a good reason: when politicians have been around too long, they frequently lose their freshness and ability to think differently.
In this context, a professional politician is a person who has made a living primarily by holding elected office, just as a professional tennis player mainly makes a living by playing tennis most of the year. This is as opposed to the non-professionals, who can occasionally get a win against the pros, but who don’t plan to make their living doing so.
Obviously, many politicians have had mixed careers. Some have worked in Washington, which gives them a good sense of how government does and does not work. Others have worked as lawyers, often taking legislators as clients. Some have worked as CEOs, who also collaborate with government to address broad economic issues. Others still have worked for non-profits to influence public policy.
Most of those people have learned something about private payrolls. But professional politicians mostly know the public payroll, so their personal aim is often to stay on the public payroll by getting reelected year after year.
But when elected office provides a person’s primary income, the professionalism can turn into a more serious problem for a lot of voters, as evidenced by the rise of nonprofessional candidates, especially in the Republican Party.
The Republicans have three nonprofessional politicians—Trump, Carson and Fiorina. The rest have been primarily reliant on public payrolls for most of their careers, despite their denials to the contrary. But it is no coincidence that the public seems to favor the non-professionals.
On the other hand, the Democrats basically have four possible candidates at the moment, all of whom have been more or less professional politicians for most of their careers.
For someone who aspires to lead the country, there surely are benefits in having experience at all three levels of government AND in all three basic sectors in the country—business, not-for-profit, and government.
In addition, character, intelligence, solid values, and balanced temperament are surely also essential ingredients in a great candidate. Perhaps most important of all is the ability to speak understandably and powerfully on the substantive issues of the day.
For an example of a successful nonprofessional politician, let’s look at today’s sitting Democratic President.
Obama was never a professional politician. He worked at several law firms and wrote two popular books (private sector), spent three years as a community organizer (not-for-profit sector), and served one term in the US Senate (public sector). With only one term in the Senate (and one unsuccessful run at the House) under his belt, Obama is hardly a professional politician.
In addition, one of the most common raps on Obama is that he is actually a lousy politician. Though he can act the part in public as needed, he apparently finds it difficult to rub noses, slap backs, and generally socialize with all but his most long-standing and familiar intimates. Despite that, he has accomplished a great deal and would likely have been able to do more if he had been more willing to play the political game.
He largely got us out of active wars, steered the economy away from the dangers of a depression, and was able to create a broad-based health care system. And in the next few weeks, he will likely have finalized a game-changing deal with Iran.
While many people did not and do not agree with a lot that he has done, Obama has used his brain, experience, eloquence, and character to leave behind after his Presidency a country, as historians will widely agree, much better situated than when he took office.
Is that what people mean when they decry professional politicians? If they genuinely want independent, quality people who care about good public policy, then we are on the same page.
We part company, if they’re looking for people who simply want to upset apple carts as a fun, even exciting, substitute for running our complex country.