What Makes Someone Qualified?

Qualified, adjective: officially recognized as being trained to perform a particular job; certified.”

There has been a lot of talk about being qualified in politics lately (or, more accurately, a lot of claims that people leading the country are unqualified). Barack Obama was lambasted from the primary on for being unqualified to be President. Conservatives spent eight years derisively referring to Obama as a “community organizer,” ignoring his education and experience in state and federal legislative roles). In turn, Democrats (and much of the media) have lashed out at Trump and his cabinet for being unqualified. A friend recently made a Facebook post lamenting the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, joking that she was the perfect addition to Trump’s uniquely unqualified cabinet. The first comment on this post countered with “Lol….Rahm Emanuel, Ash Carter, Eric Holder, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton says hi….”

This is the environment we live in. It is also absurd false equivalence. Let’s start with the particulars here:

Rahm Emanuel (Obama’s White House Cheif of Staff). What does the Cheif of Staff do? Typically the CoS plays a managerial and advisory role. They select and supervise White House staff. They serve as the President’s gatekeeper. They manage the flow of communications and information. They play a deal-maker role with Congress and various agencies when the President is trying to create and enforce new policies.

Is Emanuel qualified? Well, he has a masters in communication from Northwestern and served as a congressman (who I most remember for arguing for the “muscular use of force in Iraq to project American power), respected by colleagues in Congress on both sides who thought of him as a tough negotiator and savvy dealmaker. He had both education and real-world experience in every part of this job. Rahm Emanuel was well-qualified.

Ash Carter (Secretary of Defense): What does the Secretary of Defense do? In essence, they serve as a CEO of the Department of Defense. They are at the top of the chain of command for the various heads of the Navy, Army, Air Force, Marine Corps amongst others. They advise the President on military matters and communicate the official positions of the administration in rules and orders.

What are Ash Carter’s qualifications? He was a Harvard professor of science and international relations (and has a PhD in theoretical physics). He had served as Assistant Secretary of Defense and Under Secretary of Defense in prior administrations. So he was both a scholar of the subject and had long served in official capacities directly under the position. You cannot be more qualified for to be Secretary of Defense than Ash Carter was.

Eric Holder (Attorney General): The attorney general is the chief legal officer of the nation. They issue formal legal opinions to state and federal agencies, advocate for changes in enforcement (like in drug sentencing or antitrust regulation). They represent the federal government in court, handle criminal appeals and prosecutions. Basically, the do lawyer stuff.

How was Eric Holder qualified for this position? He was a US Attorney General for Washington D.C., a judge on the Superior Court of Washington D.C., and Deputy Attorney General of the United States. Lawyered.

John Kerry (Secretary of State): What does the Secretary of State do? The Secretary of State is the President’s chief foreign affairs adviser. The SoS carries out the President’s foreign policies through the State Department and the Foreign Service, doing things like granting and issuing passports, advising on the appointment of US ambassadors, participates or directs international conferences, negotiates treaties with other countries, informs the Congress and public of what is going on with US foreign relations, as well as acting as the chief executive officer for the Department of State and the Foreign Service. Traditionally filled by long-serving, high-profile political figures with experience in the military or foreign affairs.

John Kerry’s qualifications as Secretary of State? Decorated military service and anti-war activist during Vietnam, served nearly 30 years in the US Senate, where Congress deals with issues of foreign affairs. Qualified, by historical standards.

Hillary Clinton’s qualifications: former First Lady who was acknowledged at the time to be influential in the ways Elenor Roosevelt and Nancy Reagan were to their husbands in policy-making (foreign and domestic), eight years in the US Senate. Qualified.

Calling Obama and his team unqualified requires ignoring the definition of the word. Each of these particular appointments had years of specialized training and experience directly related to the day-to-day requirements of the position.

Can you say that about the CEO of Exxon becoming the Secretary of State? How does Rex Tillerson’s experience in running an oil company qualify him to advise the President (who is ignorant of foreign relations) on foreign policy or to negotiate international treaties that protect the interests of all Americans? The closest thing he has to navigating a difficult and contentious issue was watching over the Boy Scouts acceptance of gay boys into the Scouts. Sorry, this isn’t the same as brokering peace with Israel and Palestine.

How does being a neurosurgeon qualify Ben Carson to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development? He has never run a large administration. He has never studied housing issues or urban development. I guess he’s bought houses and he grew up poor– surely that is all the experience one needs!

Does having no degree in education, no familiarity with educational policy issues, no experience teaching in, administrating, attending, or being a parent in a public school qualify Betsy DeVos to run the Department of Education? How? Her only connection to education is that she is invested in for-profit education and she and her family are massive funders/advocates for religious education and vouchers. That support isn’t based on studying the issue or some research that shows how this can improve educational results for students in rural and urban areas (it doesn’t and won’t). It simply fits her worldview.

Having basic qualifications for the position you will fill has been the norm in most administrations. It is not the norm under Donald Trump. Instead, Trump’s administration is filled with people who have never seriously studied a subject, never worked in government, and have no practical experience in the basic functions of their new role. This is literally the definition of being unqualified. The fact that most of them can also personally benefit from how they will run these parts of the government is what makes it corrupt. Coincidentally, corrupt conduct is something they are uniquely qualified to perform.

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