In Judging Obama, Question His Judgment

“Judgment” has become the byword of the election. Barack Obama has always wanted the election to be about the importance of “good judgment,” not experience. While Obama claimed last week that he had more executive experience than Sarah Palin, he has generally stuck to this theme.

During the primaries, Obama’s claim to “good judgment” largely focused on his early opposition to the Iraq war. But, with the exception of picking Joe Biden as his running mate, virtually all the discussion of Obama’s good judgment still rests on his opposition to the war.

Obama still has some work to convince people that he possesses good judgment. A new poll released last week by the Pew Research Center found that Americans by 51 to 36 percent trust John McCain’s “good judgment in crisis” over Obama’s.

But what does it mean to say that Obama has “good judgment”? Does he make the right policy decisions? The presidency is extremely powerful. Can Obama be trusted to restrain his use of that power? Can he judge people and figure out the right people to staff his administration?

1) The Right Decision?

Given the emphasis on opposing the war, Obama clearly believes that the ultimate test is whether decisions stand the test of time. So does Obama stick with his decisions in other areas? Sometimes decisions that ultimately turn out to be right might not always appear so, but having good judgment presumably means sticking with a decision even when it might not immediately be obvious to others.

On ending the war, though, Obama has held many positions: from withdrawing troops immediately in 2009 to taking 16 months to withdraw them when the military advisers recommend that it is safe to withdraw them. During the last few months Obama has changed his positions on a wide range of very important issues: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, NAFTA, public financing of campaigns, gun control, abortion, gay marriage, Social Security taxes, the death penalty and negotiating with rogue nations.

Whatever decision is the “correct” decision, either Obama was right a few months ago or he is right now. His judgment can’t be right in both circumstances.

2) The Ability to Judge People?

Presidents must know who to trust. Many would quickly point to Obama’s self-identified mentors, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Father Michael Pfleger, whom Obama has known for decades and who have a long history of outrageous statements. Many also don’t believe that Obama never knew that Wright and Pfleger had these controversial views despite some denials because these men had national reputations and Obama has himself later admitted that he knew about them.

Others have pointed to Obama’s association with Williams Ayers, one of the founders of the terrorist group the Weathermen. Ayers has very publicly proclaimed on national television shows during the time Obama was working with him that Ayers was not sorry for the bombings "and that we would do it again" and "I didn’t do enough.”

Still others point to Tony Rezko, the Illinois political fix-it man who was recently convicted of bribery. Rezko contributed what amounted to probably hundreds of thousands of dollars toward buying Obama house and raised over $160,000 more toward Obama’s campaigns.

But there is another less noticed problem. Obama doesn’t seem to be able to find employees whom he can trust. The mainstream media has recognized this problem. One article by ABC’s Jake Tapper was entitled "Obama's Inability to Hire Good Help Rears Its Head … Again.” Another by Politico’s Ken Vogel was entitled "Obama vs. his staff.”

-- Among the better known examples, an aide, Austan Goolsbee, told Canadians that Obama didn’t mean his promise made right before the crucial Ohio primary that he would renegotiate NAFTA. Obama disavowed Goolsbee’s claim and said that he had misstated Obama’s position, and Goolsbee denied claims by the Canadians.

-- A 1996 candidate questionnaire form that was answered stating that Obama supported a ban on handguns was explained as a staffer’s mistake. A statement to the Chicago Tribune last fall claiming that Obama supported the DC gun ban was dismissed as a staffer’s mistake.

-- In a 2004 questionnaire, Obama refrained from criticizing Yasir Arafat or strongly supporting Israel’s security force. As ABC noted: “Mr. Obama blamed a staff member for the oversight.”

-- Obama was asked this year about funding he got for the University of Chicago while his wife, Michelle, worked there. He claimed that someone on his staff had handled it because neither he nor his wife would have allowed his office to benefit his wife’s work.

-- When the Tony Rezko corruption questions emerged, Obama claimed that he had never done anything to advance Rezko’s business interests. Then a letter Obama signed was discovered supporting a Rezko project to city and state housing officials. Obama said that he wasn’t aware of the letter and he said that staff had mishandled it. When answers to questions about how much money Rezko had raised for Obama campaigns proved to be much too low, the mistake was again blamed on staff.

-- When Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination was announced, Obama’s campaign immediately issued a statement that reporters described as "ripping” into her. A few hours later, after the initial public reaction, Obama first supported and then backed away from the statement, saying that his campaign had misrepresented his views.

-- Tim Russert confronted Obama at a Democratic Presidential debate in January about Obama’s campaign claiming that the Clintons were “stoking racial tensions.” Yet again, Obama blamed his "overzealous” staff.

The list goes on, but these cases seem to leave only two options: Either Obama is dishonest and these mistakes were not really mistakes, or he is a very poor judge of people.

Since Obama points to his campaign as proof that he has more executive experience than Palin, these problems also raise questions about how efficiently he runs things. If his own staff keeps on making mistakes in misrepresenting what Obama believes, can Obama clearly tell staff what policies he wants them to implement if he becomes president.

3) Does he have the right judgment to exercise government power?

Presidents have tremendous power. Abuses of power even before someone becomes president should raise a red flag. Some recent behavior by Obama’s campaign raises some real concerns.

On Aug. 27, Milt Rosenberg -- an institution in Chicago, broadcasting on WGN radio since 1973 -- had Stanley Kurtz on to discuss Kurtz’s research showing the extremely extensive relationship between Obama and William Ayers. Milt, who is a very middle-of-the-road person, had tried to have both sides represented and had invited a representative of the Obama campaign. No one from the campaign agreed to appear. Instead, there was an immediate, massive call-in campaign to the radio station to have WGN cancel Kurtz’s appearance. When that failed, the campaign organized supporters to call into the station and simply tie up the telephone lines so that other listeners couldn’t ask questions. Others threatened Federal Communication Commission action to revoke WGN’s license.

Rosenberg said that he had never seen anything similar to silence discussion during his years on radio.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a unique case. For example, when ads were run in August discussing Obama’s relationship to Ayers, Obama’s campaign demanded that the Department of Justice criminally investigate the group behind the ads. (What criminal charges that were justified by running an ad were never explained.) It is bad enough that a senator demands criminal charges against a political opponent, but this becomes a real problem if the president of the U.S. asks his justice department to do the same thing.


It is difficult to understand Obama’s claim to “good judgment.” When has any modern major party presidential nominee so frequently changed his positions on so many important issues or blamed his staff for so many problems? If Obama can’t consistently hold positions on important issues, how can he claim that he has such good judgment? Possibly Obama can come up with some other way of showing "good judgment," but so far he hasn't succeeded using the standards that he wants to be judged by.

John Lottis the author of Freedomnomics and a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland.

Join the discussion on this piece here.