01/17/2008 10:31 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Organizer-in-Chief or Commander-in-Chief?

At the debate in Las Vegas Senator Hillary Clinton dominated the round table. Seated fortuitously in the center, she seemed like the CEO in a boardroom discussing issues with two feisty but competent subordinates. She was knowledgeable and forceful. She was inclusive as she asked Senator Obama to co-sponsor legislation. She was take-charge as she insisted on injecting answers on which she had passionate convictions, like the welfare of children. She took aggressive swipes at the current president, calling him "pathetic."

Hillary was in her element at this last debate. She's a policy wonk a la her husband, but without the homey rhetoric and charm of a storyteller. She's more like a distaff Al Gore, less wooden but equally serious, focused and humorless. Hillary's who you wanted in your study group in college, but not who you wanted to party with after finals. But we're not electing a friend; we're electing a chief executive for the country. For that role, Hillary came across as fully and proudly ready to lead.

Senator Barack Obama did not come across the same way. He would, of course, be good in a study group, too, and he'd probably be fun in the bar afterward. He's good at a quip, charming in his self-deprecation and sincere. On the chief executive front, however, he's shaky. It wasn't just his admission that he can't keep his papers at hand or in order. He seems to believe that his primary role is not to wield executive authority, but to bring Americans together around the great issues we face. But his "kumbaya-like" invocation smacks of historical naiveté.

America's history of change in the rights of women, workers, minorities and misguided policies is a history of people organizing to force the government to act. Check your People's History of America by Howard Zinn. Lincoln didn't organize the abolitionists. FDR didn't organize workers or the veterans in the Bonus Army or blacks who pressured him to help pass a federal anti-lynching law, and who pressured later presidents on larger civil rights' reforms. The first and second waves of the women's movement, movements against various wars and for economic reforms, all were movements of the people, by the people. They didn't need presidents who, as Obama claims, could "bring people together from different perspectives." They wanted presidents who, like Lyndon Johnson, understood the sausage-making task of passing legislation well enough to get something to the Oval Office for a signature.

If Obama thinks he won't be fully occupied by his executive role, he should ponder what JFK said about how he hoped to act as president. "I want to be a president," he said during his campaign, "who acts as well as reacts, who originates programs as well as study groups; who masters complex problems as well as one-page memorandums. I want to be a president who is a chief executive in every sense of the word, who responds to a problem, not by hoping his subordinates will act, but by directing them to act, a president who is willing to take responsibility for getting things done, and take the blame if they are not done right." Did JFK arouse people's emotions and inspire them? Certainly. And clearly Obama has that ability. But JFK understood that his chief job was to wield executive power to its fullest in pursuit of his goals.

Nothing in Obama's debate performance showed recognition of the fully absorbing and intricate difficulties of the president's role. Leaders know that making change involves conflict between constituencies. There is no magic coming together that will change that fact. It's just brutally hard, often delicately strategic work that takes not only the desire to effect change but also, like it or not, experience.

Hillary Clinton spent eight years as close to executive power as any person in any administration ever. She's added another seven years as a workhorse in the Senate, willing to work across party lines to make change. She's ready to be Commander-in-Chief because she understands just what that role means.