Sunday, August 3, 2008

Is Barack Obama Too Young to be President?

Much has been made of the relative youth and "inexperience" of Barack Obama.  Obviously, neither age nor youth, neither experience nor lack thereof, is any guarantee of sound judgment and policy.  Much of that not terribly edifying  discussion, understandably, takes American political figures (John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King) as its points of reference.

It can also be instructive to turn to European examples. As I constantly remind my students, our notion that the political leader of a great power is someone of mature years does not necessarily fit the historical pattern. 

Fascist movements, for example, presented themselves not least as dynamic movements of generational rebellion, in which  the young asserted their rights over the "old" men, parties, and ideas held responsible for the First World War and subsequent chaos.  Although Churchill indeed fits the image of the senior statesman (age 65) when called upon to assume control of the government during World War II, his enemies had risen to power in their relative youth:  Mussolini was only 39 when he became Prime Minister, and Hitler was appointed Chancellor at the age of 43.

The youth factor is even more apparent if one turns to the French Revolution, which, as the successor to a closed social and political system, necessarily brought men of new social origins to power. Many of them were also young. Even the Old Régime, however, could claim that youth was on its side: Louis XVI was but 34 when the Bastille fell.  Robespierre and Saint-Just were 35 and 26 years old, respectively, when executed on the 10th of Thermidor.  Barère and Tallien, who overthrew them, were just 38 and 27.  Napoleon Bonaparte was 30 years old when he seized power.  Wellington and Napoleon both turned 46 in the year of Waterloo--the same age as Barack Obama today.

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