Friday, April 1, 2011

The Elusiveness of "Presidential Judgment"

Kevin Drum is saying something that’s on a lot of liberal minds. By his own admission, when he decided during the 2008 presidential primaries to hitch his wagon to Barack Obama’s candidacy rather than Hillary Clinton’s it wasn’t because he liked Obama's policy positions better than Hillary's. How could he when their campaign promises were materially identical? It could only have been because Obama the man inspired more of Drum's confidence than Hillary the woman.

Like a lot of liberals, Drum is now steeling himself against pangs of buyer’s remorse:
“[T]he reason I voted for Obama in 2008 is because I trust his judgment. And not in any merely abstract way, either: I mean that if he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I'd literally trust his judgment over my own. I think he's smarter than me, better informed, better able to understand the consequences of his actions, and more farsighted. I voted for him because I trust him, and I still do.

“For now, anyway. But I wouldn't have intervened in Libya and he did. I sure hope his judgment really does turn out to have been better than mine.”
Drum reminds us that, when we choose a president, we’re authorizing a person to act in our name. And for most of us, that’s a matter of trusting another person's judgment more than we trust our own. Our pre-existing ideological and partisan commitments and our best guesses about electability help us narrow down the field of trustworthy candidates, but they seldom leave only one candidate standing. “Judgment” is one of the names (along with “character” and “temperament”) that we give to the residue of ill-defined, and probably indefinable, considerations that inspire us to put more trust in one of the presidential finalists than the others.

Two years into the Obama presidency, everyone can reassess their own decisions about candidate Obama for themselves. I’m more interested in the rationality of the decision a lot of us made on the basis of imperfect information to trust Obama’s judgment in 2008. That was a matter of judgment on our part.

It’s easy to see why we were impressed by Obama’s intelligence, eloquence and personal rectitude. But the fact that we’ve all run into intelligent, well-intentioned and silver-tongued fools, shows that having those qualities doesn’t say much about presidential judgment. What made us think that Obama was a guy who could wisely measure benefits against costs (including the opportunity cost of foregoing other benefits) in high-stakes situations under conditions of extreme uncertainty?

If you ask me, the only thing that should inspire such trust in a presidential candidate is a demonstrated capacity to make wise executive decisions. What in Obama’s record as a star student, a community organizer and a backbencher in the Illinois and the United States Senate demonstrates that? As far as I can see, not much of anything.

By saying that, I don’t think I’m being particularly hard on Obama, or implying that it was unreasonable to suppose during the last presidential campaign that he’d have better presidential judgment than Hillary Clinton or John McCain. The fact is that being a legislator, even a highly visible one like McCain, doesn’t have much to do with a presidential skill set. In any case, Hillary’s exclusively legislative political career wasn't that much longer or more distinguished, than Obama’s. Her claim to be better able to field an urgent 3 a.m. phone call was based almost entirely on her husband’s executive experience and the ceremonial functions she performed when he was president. When you think about it, whatever doubts you may have about her education, intelligence and integrity, Sarah Palin's record as a small-town mayor and a half-term small-state governor says as much about her presidential judgment as the political careers of Obama, Clinton and McCain put together.

We all played the political cards that were dealt us as best we could.  It’s not hard to understand why a lot of us trusted Obama’s judgment as much as we trusted Clinton’s and McCain’s.   But that doesn't mean that we have much reason for being very surprised if it turns out that Obama’s presidential judgment isn't all it was cracked up to be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, I think Drum and you are all wet. When we choose a president, we’re doing just that -- choosing among alternative candidates, of which ourselves are not among them. I can't imagine that people compare presidential candidates' intellect to their own. That's kind of weird. On the other hand, I do agree that we choose among candidates based
on how we view their judgment, character and temperament.

As to Obama the candidate vs Obama the president, if liberals are surprised that Obama's presidential judgment isn't all it was cracked up to be, then their expectations were based on fantasy. This will be a lesson the next time a candidate with no history of leadership and proven judgment tries to become president.