You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground.
The conventional wisdom about Barack Obama is that he’s smart and charismatic but so inexperienced that we should feel jittery about him in the Oval Office.
But that view is myopic. In some respects, Mr. Obama is far more experienced than other presidential candidates.
His experience as an antipoverty organizer in Chicago, for example, gives him a deep grasp of a crucial 21st-century challenge — poverty in America — that almost all politicians lack. He says that grass-roots experience helps explain why he favors not only government spending programs, like early childhood education, but also cultural initiatives, like efforts to promote responsible fatherhood.
In foreign policy as well, Mr. Obama would bring to the White House an important experience that most other candidates lack: he has actually lived abroad. He spent four years as a child in Indonesia and attended schools in the Indonesian language, which he still speaks.
“I was a little Jakarta street kid,” he said in a wide-ranging interview in his office (excerpts are on my blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground). He once got in trouble for making faces during Koran study classes in his elementary school, but a president is less likely to stereotype Muslims as fanatics — and more likely to be aware of their nationalism — if he once studied the Koran with them.
Mr. Obama recalled the opening lines of the Arabic call to prayer, reciting them with a first-rate accent. In a remark that seemed delightfully uncalculated (it’ll give Alabama voters heart attacks), Mr. Obama described the call to prayer as “one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset.”
Moreover, Mr. Obama’s own grandfather in Kenya was a Muslim. Mr. Obama never met his grandfather and says he isn’t sure if his grandfather’s two wives were simultaneous or consecutive, or even if he was Sunni or Shiite. (O.K., maybe Mr. Obama should just give up on Alabama.)
Our biggest mistake since World War II has been a lack of sensitivity to other people’s nationalism, from Vietnam to Iraq. Perhaps as a result of his background, Mr. Obama has been unusually sensitive to such issues and to the need to project respect rather than arrogance. He has consistently shown great instincts.
Mr. Obama’s visit to Africa last year hit just the right diplomatic notes. In Kenya, he warmly greeted the president — but denounced corruption and went out of his way to visit a bold newspaper that government agents had ransacked. In South Africa, he respectfully but firmly criticized the government’s unscientific bungling of the AIDS epidemic. In Chad, he visited Darfur refugees.
“My experience growing up in Indonesia or having family in small villages in Africa — I think it makes me much more mindful of the importance of issues like personal security or freedom from corruption,” he said, adding: “I’ve witnessed it in much more direct ways than I think the average American has witnessed it.”
As a senator, Mr. Obama has not only seized the issue of nuclear proliferation, but also the question of small arms. For a majority of the world’s inhabitants, those AK-47s and R.P.G.’s are the weapons of mass destruction.
So how would an Obama administration differ from the Bill Clinton presidency in foreign policy? One way, he said, would be a much greater emphasis on promoting education, health care and development in Africa and other poor regions — not just for humanitarian reasons, but also with an eye to national security.
“If we can’t take what, relative to our military hardware and defense budgets, are a pittance, and put some resources into these areas, we will not be secure,” he noted, adding: “The Marshall Plan was part of a security strategy; it wasn’t simply charity.”
Mr. Obama thumps the White House on trade and foreign investments, like the Dubai ports deal — but he isn’t demagogic in the way that too many Democrats have been. And three years ago, Mr. Obama was quoted in The Chicago Tribune as making hawkish comments about a military strike on Iran, but in the interview he pirouetted and noted that one of the lessons of Iraq is that “being trigger-happy ... is a recipe for disaster.” That’s a welcome sign of growth.
So, granted, Mr. Obama lacks the extensive experience at top levels of diplomacy of, say, Dick Cheney or ... oh, never mind.
What sets Mr. Obama apart is the way his training has been at the grass-roots rather than in the treetops. And that may be the richest kind of background of all, yielding not just experience, but also wisdom.