The question of the day on C-SPAN's Washington Journal this morning (January 17, 2007):

Is Barack Obama experienced enough to be President of the United States?

Not surprisingly, Democrats assured us that he is. Republicans hooted at his brief career in national politics.

The truth is that winning the presidency is a combination of timing and likeability. That is, the timing must be right for your brand of change. If you are running against a popular incumbent, the record indicates that a challenger, no matter how smart, no matter how articulate, no matter how handsome, does not fare well. Think Dwight Eisenhower is 1956; Ronald Reagan in 1984; Bill Clinton in 1996. Was there a challenger anywhere in America capable of diverting those landslide reelection victories?

On the other hand, if you are running against a failed incumbent, and the collective sense of the American people is that change is necessary, almost any candidate, no matter how formerly unknown or inexperienced, can win on the first Tuesday in November. After twelve years of Democratic Party rule, any candidate could have beaten Martin Van Buren in the aftermath of the Panic of 1837. Similarly, any candidate could have bested Herbert Hoover, broken on the wheel of economic depression, in 1932.

Much more fluid are elections in which there is no incumbent or heir apparent to an administration in power. We are approaching just such a rare election in 2008.

In these elections (this election), timing will be an important factor; that is, what is the zeitgeist of the American electorate? Does the economy drive the decision? National security? The national debt? Taxes? Integrity? These are all important factors.

But in this election in which there is no incumbent and no heir apparent, all things being equal, likeability will be an extremely strong determinant in the contest.

Do Americans care about experience? Not especially. Al Gore was much more experienced than George Bush, but Bush won the likeability contest by a wide margin (and, of course, John Kerry was incredibly unappealing). Jerry Ford was eminently more experienced and qualified to be president than Jimmy Carter--but Americans were ready for a change.

Henry Clay was the most qualified American statesman to never be president--but his accomplishments did not matter to Americans in 1844 when they elected virtually unknown James K. Polk over the Great Compromiser. J.Q. Adams boasted perhaps the finest record of public service in all our history--but he lost the popular vote in 1824 to the charismatic war hero, Andrew Jackson. JFK and LBJ in the Democratic contest for the nomination in 1960. JFK and Nixon in the general in 1960.

Moreover, add into the 2008 equation friendly media coverage of an Obama campaign, and you can easily envision how his inexperience could be an advantage. Voters tend to project their own views on fresh faces. In fact, during the modern era, extensive voting records have proved debilitating handicaps in media-driven elections.

I make no definite prediction here, but in answer to the question of whether Americans will elect an inexperienced person whom they like and to whom they can attach their optimism and desire for a change? Or can Barack Obama be elected? Bet the farm on it.

Note: Thanks to Citlalli for her consultation in the development of this post.