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John Feehery: Portman, the anti-Obama

Greg Nash

Obama did it. Why can’t I?

That’s the question just about every U.S. senator and more than a few House members are asking themselves.

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I have heard it myself from more than a few staff members and outside consultants.

Barack Obama won the White House with a pretty thin resume. He had a few terms in the Illinois state Senate and a partial term in the U.S. Senate.

He had no executive branch experience and no experience running a big organization. 

Despite those shortcomings — or perhaps because of them — he was able to beat Hillary Clinton in a heated Democratic primary and then waltz into the White House against a weak Republican opponent. Amid the fiscal crisis and the unpopularity of the Iraq War, Washington experience seemed pretty overrated during the 2008 campaign. 

Six years later, several Republicans are contemplating their own run for the White House. Despite the unpopularity of the president among Republicans, these potential candidates see Obama’s dearth of experience as an inspiration for their own runs, not as a deterrent.

Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio all have experience that is roughly equal to Obama’s when he announced his intention to run for the White House. Rubio’s the best of the bunch, in my humble opinion, but none of them have a particularly deep understanding of either the legislative or the executive branches. 

The media has obsessed on these first-term senators but has largely ignored the accomplishments and potential of their colleague from Ohio, Rob Portman.

Portman would break the Obama mold. 

Where Obama was a rookie to the legislative process, Portman is a pro. Before he won his Senate seat, the Ohio Republican had a successful and impressive career in the House of Representatives, racking up legislative accomplishments and boasting a bipartisan record of achievement. 

Whereas Obama hadn’t even stepped foot in the White House before taking office, Portman held several positions on the staffs of two different presidents. His experience at the Office of Management and Budget gave him a deep understanding of the levers of government. In his tenure as the U.S. Trade Representative, he developed both the relationships and the know-how to be able to operate at a high level on the international stage. 

Portman’s tenure in the Senate hasn’t been wasted. He has worked hard to continue his track record of bipartisan accomplishment, and in his position at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he has helped Jerry Moran, the NRSC chairman, raise boatloads of money from an impressive network of donors. 

Portman’s not exactly Mr. Excitement. He will never have Obama’s ability to turn a phrase or give a rousing speech. But in the post-Obama era, we might all be looking for something more substantial than a rousing speech or a tingling feeling up our collective legs. 

Portman is, by his nature, a careful politician. He is not a risk-taker, nor is he prone to the verbal gaffes that make other political figures so compelling for the national media. 

But that doesn’t mean he is not courageous. He decided to change his position on gay marriage, for example, not because he closely read the polls but because he listened closely to his son. This change of position has upset a portion of his political base, some of whom will probably never fully trust the Ohio Republican again. 

Portman’s sincerity and his experience will likely win most of those folks back over to his side, should he decide to run for the White House. 

Military strategists always warn of the perils of fighting the last war when planning for the next one. I think pundits who look at the Obama model to predict the next Republican model are making a mistake.

Just because the Democrats won with a candidate who had little experience in 2008 doesn’t necessarily that the Republicans can replicate that model in 2016. In the meantime, those same pundits should give Rob Portman another look. He is the anti-Obama in more ways than one.

Feehery is president of QGA Public Affairs and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com. He served as spokesman to former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) when he was majority whip and as speechwriter to former Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).