Counterpoint on the Obama Experience Question: Judgment vs. Intuition


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Although Steve Clemons knows I am an Obama supporter I did not coordinate or clear this post with the Obama campaign. For better or worse these views are mine and mine alone.
— Michael Schiffer

I don’t know whether Senator Obama reads The Washington Note or not, but in his speech in Iowa City the other day there was a line not in the prepared text that suggests that Senator Obama has an answer to some of the questions Steve Clemons has been raising about feeling like he is being asked by Obama to simply trust his “identity”, his “intuition” or his “his gut” as a reason to support him.
Here is what Senator Obama said:

“So if you want to know what is in the gut of a presidential candidate take a look at their record. . .take a look at what they have accomplished before they were president. . .at the choices they made before they were president. . .”

Now, Steve and I can argue endlessly, I imagine, about how to parse the record. And we can likewise be filled with endless anguish about how to evaluate and weight the different components and measures of experience, judgment, intelligence, and so forth in determining what candidate to support.
But putting that aside — at least for right now; in a separate post I also intend to offer my thoughts and perspectives on some of the “measures of experience” that Steve has raised about Obama, too — it strikes me that if you actually listen to what Obama is saying he is not at all, in fact, asking the sort of question about “intuition” that Steve seems to think he is. In fact, while I don’t know if I’d go so far as to suggest that the “intuition” argument is intentionally misleading — I know that Steve, at least, takes this stuff very, very seriously and that the questions he has been raising are a sincere effort to grapple with the many legitimate issues that go into deciding what candidate to support. It does seem fair to say that based on Obama’s own words the claim that Obama and his campaign are making a “cultish” pitch on the alter of “intuition” is something of a red herring.

Rather, it strikes me that what Senator Obama is asking people to do is simply to look at what is in fact his long and open public record, including going on twelve years now in elected office in the Illinois legislature and in the US Senate, but also his time as a community organizer as well as other aspects of his life, all well-chewed over and in the public record. . .and then to draw their own conclusions about whether or not he has displayed the judgment and has the sort of temperament that we look for and hope for in a president. This isn’t a question of intuition, but of a policy record. Trust, in other words, but verify.
His “Our Moment Is Now” closing argument speech, in fact, contains a section in which he offers up a recounting of his biography and the range of experiences he would bring to the job of president, his accomplishments, the choices he has made, and the judgments, too, that let us know what sort of president he is likely to be.
So his approach — or at least so it seems to me — is one that places a high value on experience, but that construes experience more broadly than simply checking the boxes of a traditional inside-the-beltway career climb, and, more importantly, also places experience in context. Its an approach, for example, that does not take experience as an empty category, something asserted, but asks people to reflect on what experience actually is and what it actually means.
How does banging a gavel in a Senate hearing room or working as a community organizer or being a governor or being a First Lady or being in a state legislature transfer into the skills we seek in a president? Clearly in different ways and to different degrees all do, but as the history of numerous successful and not-so-successful presidencies can also attest, neither is there a straight line from any of these backgrounds and experiences to success in the Oval Office.
After all, we don’t look to leaders to have experience as the thing in and of itself — if we did, the Draft Dick Cheney campaign should be picking up steam right about now, no? But because we use experience as a proxy for something more valuable and much more needed in our elected officials: wisdom and judgment. Your experiences, whatever they may be, inform your identity, after all, and if you are experienced, we hope, you emerge with an identity better able to make key judgments, and better able to handle whatever challenges life might throw at you in the future.
And this — or again, at least so it seems to me — is a slightly more sophisticated and nuanced question then those who attempt to reduce this simply to that of a question of “identity” or “intuition”.
In fact, it is an approach that really asks not to rely on intuition at all, but rather to evaluate the judgment displayed by the different candidates not based on made-up categories about the past or empty promises about the future, but based on the realities of the totality of their life experiences and, for those who have lived part of their lives in the public arena, on their past public actions, statements, choices, and votes.
Its an approach that would ask us to evaluate what to make of a candidate who may have checked all the boxes of certain traditional political experiences yet, in their record of public life — in their stands on the important issues of the day — has exercised, at least at times, poor judgment. Its an approach that would ask us what we make of a candidate who has lots of experience, but don’t seem to have learned much from it. Its an approach that would ask us what we make of a candidate who may have, along with some traditional experience, some less traditional or even non-traditional experience, too, but who seems to “get it”, and who has a proven track records of actually managing to think big, to get things done, and to get things right more often than wrong.
After all, if experience does not translate into good judgment, what good is it? And if good judgment is derived from non-traditional experiences, why malign them?
So looking at the judgment that the different candidates have displayed — where they are, where they have been, what they have said, the choices they have made, and what they have accomplished — on issues like Iraq, Iran, Cuba, nuclear non-proliferation, congressional ethics, campaign finance reform, health care (and any number of other issues, too) are thus the very currency of being able to evaluate if a candidate has the sort of judgment we want to see in a president.
And while “judgment” may be a difficult category to get one’s hands around — and I prefer to think about this in terms of “judgment”, rather than the more, um, judgmental term “intuition — it is not entirely an abstract quality, either. And possessing good judgment is in fact a very desirable political virtue in our leaders, a point General McPeak made in discussing what the Joint Chiefs and our military looks and hopes for in a president when he introduced Obama to the crowd in Iowa City. After all, as Madison reminds us in Federalist 57, “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society. . .”]
So while it probably ought not be the only factor voters take into account, what’s wrong, or “cultish” about looking for the “wisdom to discern” as a trait in our next president? And what better way to tell who has the wisdom to discern then looking at the track record of their judgment and choices, at how discerning they have in fact been — or not — when it counts?
So if you don’t like where Obama is on the issues, or, in looking over his life and public record think that he has exhibited poor judgment and made poor choices, that’s fine. He is obviously not your candidate. Likewise, I suppose, if you don’t value the “wisdom to discern” as something to look for — one factor among many — in a president. But that is also a very different proposition then arguing that you are being asked to support Obama – or any candidate — simply on the basis of “innate instinct“.
— Michael Schiffer
Michael Schiffer is The Washington Note’s blogger for the Iowa Caucuses and is a resident of Iowa. He is a program officer in Policy Analysis and Dialogue at the Stanley Foundation based in Muscatine, Iowa — and was previously senior national security adviser and legislative director in the Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)


10 comments on “Counterpoint on the Obama Experience Question: Judgment vs. Intuition

  1. JohnH says:

    This whole post totally misses the point. Instead of discussing Obama’s experience, the spotlight should be on Hillary’s. Obama is not the ‘experience’ candidate; Hillary is. And Hillary’s claim is preposterous. In fact, none of the leading Democrats has a good presidential resume, no real record of accomplishment, no evidence of making tough decisions under fire.
    Republicans and some in the media have made much of Democrats’ lack of experience. I particularly like this one:
    Why is Steve swallowing Hillary’s disingenuous claim to experience hook, line and sinker?


  2. Lurker says:

    Mr. Schiffer seems like a nice guy but he worked for DIE-anne Feinstein, whose husband, Richard Blum’s, company, Perini, made a fortune off of the invasion of Iraq.
    This while Feinstein sat on the Military Construction Appropriations committee *forgetting* to resign from that sensitive position until after her husband had pocketed the lucre.
    Sorry, Mr. Schiffer, but there’s some guilt-by-association (to Feinstein) going on in my mind.
    Mr. Schiffer, I would really like you to comment on the following examples of Feinstein’s perfidy – thanks!
    enator Feinstein’s Iraq Conflict
    As a member of the Military Construction Appropriations subcommittee, Sen. Feinstein voted for appropriations worth billions to her husband’s firms
    But the Congressional Record shows that as chairperson and ranking member of MILCON, Feinstein was often involved in supervising the legislative details of military construction projects that directly affected Blum’s defense-contracting firms.
    According to the Center for Public Integrity, Feinstein’s husband Richard Blum has racked in millions of dollars from Perini, a civil infrastructure construction company, of which the billionaire investor wields a 75 percent voting share.
    In April 2003, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave $500 million to Perini to provide services for Iraq’s Central Command. A month earlier in March 2003, Perini was awarded $25 million to design and construct a facility to support the Afghan National Army near Kabul. And in March 2004, Perini was awarded a hefty contract worth up to $500 million for “electrical power distribution and transmission” in southern Iraq.
    Feinstein, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee as well as the Select Committee on Intelligence, is reaping the benefits of her husband’s investments. The Democratic royal family recently purchased a $16.5 million mansion in the flush Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. It’s a disgusting display of war profiteering, and just like Cheney, the leading Democrat should be called out for her offense.


  3. Linda says:

    I am not sure where (probably on campaign website) you can get a list of each candidate’s advisors. But I only need one, Laurence Tribe, on Obama’s team to be impressed that Obama just might be the best candidate. Tribe is professor of constitutional law at Harvard. He was co-counsel and probably should have argued Bush v. Gore before the Supreme Court rather than David Boies, though I doubt that would have changed the outcome.
    Indeed though he didn’t tell anyone publicly for debates, Obama so impressed Tribe when he was in law school, not just in class, but how he led and brought people together, that it was one of the few times he ever thought of a student that this guy could be President some day. And remember that also in Obama’s resume is teaching constitutional law.
    Well, all three Democrats are lawyers. Hillary worked for the Rose law firm. Edwards was a trial lawyer representing average folks against big corporations. They both earned a lot of money. Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago from 1993 until 2004 during the time he was a community organizer, civil rights attorney, and state legislator. And I think an in-depth knowledge and appreciation of the Constitution is very important.


  4. Paul says:

    Barack Obama is absolutely incomparable politician, high profiled thinker and analytical figure, who can manage well and govern Washington properly, more than any other so called ‘experienced’ politician in the candidates front line. He deserve Voting! God Loves America, God Loves Americans. Vote Obama for US Presidency


  5. Dan Kervick says:

    It’s heroic of you, Michael, to go to all of this trouble to defend Obama against Steve’s criticisms. But frankly the debate about the importance of Obama’s gut is a bit absurd. Obama’s references to his “gut” were in direct response to an ongoing theme from the *Edwards* campaign suggesting that Obama is too academic and intellectual, and extolling the power of the *Edwards* gut. This was reported in the New York Times on 12/27:
    “Mr. Edwards has been increasingly painting Mr. Obama as an out-of-touch intellectual, while describing himself as someone who uses his “gut” and “passion” to lead. He often reminds voters that there’s nothing “academic” or “analytical” about the way that he makes decisions.”
    “Last week, in response to a question from a voter, Mr. Edwards said in a subtle jab at Mr. Obama, “There is a difference between somebody who speaks in an academic, intellectual way about these things, and somebody who’s driven from here,” he said, gesturing to his chest.”
    The point of Obama’s speech was to argue, with deliberate irony, that if gut instincts are what floats your boat, then rather than compare the Edwards gut and Obama gut on the basis of windy campaign stump speeches, it would be better to compare their actual records during periods of important national crises. Obviously Obama was trying to draw attention to the fact that Edwards’s “gut” didn’t help him very much when he was called on to cast the Iraq war authorization vote. he also wanted to get them to recall that as a state senator, he actually *did* something about the lobbyists Edwards has now discovered, but did nothing about when he was in the US Senate.
    So the notion that Obama has been going around making appeals to the greatness of his gut instincts is almost the exact opposite of reality. Obama is a constitutional law professor by trade, an outstanding law student according to Lawrence Tribe, a former law review editor, and by most accounts a most deliberate and analytical thinker.
    I think we just saw a fairly good example of Obama’s patient care and deliberate decision-making style, and how it compares with some of his rivals, in the aftermath of the Bhutto assassination.
    Bill Richardson, apparently one of the most experienced candidates in the field in the area of foreign policy, went for a quick political score following the Bhutto assassination, which resulted in a rather reckless call for Musharraf to step down immediately. (That’s just the latest in a string of erratic and poorly articulated foreign policy statements by Richardson.) The equally experienced Chris Dodd also got off early in the Bhutto aftermath, but seemed by contrast to be much more grounded and clear-thinking.
    Obama didn’t rush to the cameras to give his “as it happens” snap judgment on Pakistan. He waited a few days, and no doubt gathered more information and discussed the issues thoroughly with advisors, and his comments on Pakistan during his Meet The Press interview on Sunday struck me as significantly more clear-headed and sober than any of the others we heard, including Clinton’s earlier remarks on Wolf Blitzer’s show. The supposedly more experienced Clinton also committed a bit of a gaffe on both CNN and ABC by indicating that she thought Musharraf was personally standing for election to something in the upcoming elections.
    Several of the experienced candidates who spoke out quickly, without mulling things over very well, also indulged the unfortunate tendency of American politicians to personalize foreign policy questions. They played up their personal connections to Bhutto, thereby confusing personal relationships between some individual Americans and Benazir Bhutto with the US relationship with Pakistan, and American national security interests in that country. This is reminiscent of the gut-driven George Bush and his look into Vlad Putin’s soul. Obama studiously avoided getting drawn into sentimental effusions about Bhutto, and let the gush of Benazir-love subside a bit before giving his considered assessment.


  6. Jeff says:

    What has struck me as particularly important, especially in light of the six years that we have witnessed under the Bush Administration, is a president’s eye for talent. The executive branch is bigger than one man, and the leadership of a president lies within his/her ability to find the right minds and personalities for the right positions. I think history will see that Rumsfeld was not the right choice for the DoD in this period of American history, nor were several of Bush’s appointments in the scientific, education, energy, and other fields. More so than his own presence, Bush’s fingerprint on the many agencies in this country will have a longstanding affect on this country.
    So, in these primaries, should we not consider who each candidate has surrounded him/herself with? I am very much in support of Obama’s association with Brzezinski, and I have noted that Obama is often in agreement with the foreign policy explanations put forward by Biden (I’d be a Biden supporter if he could break out of the single digits). These are encouraging signs to me.
    But where can I find a list of each candidate’s policy advisors? I can’t seem to find them on the campaign websites.


  7. Vaughan says:

    I remember well the Lawrence Wilkerson speech. You played a key role there when the tide finally turned in much of the public opinion! Your attention to details is important. You also are good at looking beyond partisan stereotypes. Of the Dem candidates, Obama and then Biden are my choices. Biden is very good [although his votes for the bankruptcy bill a few years ago (favored the credit card companies–what does one expect from Delaware) irked me]. Biden has been prescient in the terror issue, and a voice of reason in general in terms of foreign affairs.


  8. Ross Smith says:

    Character. That’s the real measure. Look at his record means read his books, listen to him, look at his life.
    Yea, it is a gestalt judgment. For instance, when Bush sneered and laughed about the death penalty and pardons in a primary debate in 2000, I cringed and knew never to trust him.
    It’s tough, but you must judge it. Ignore character at your peril.


  9. Steve Clemons says:

    Hi Vaughn and happy new year,
    Just a quick, semi-defensive reply. I don’t have anything eating in my gut about Obama. I simply found something in his profile, largely by accident, about committee hearings. I’ve always been an institutionalist — fascinated by the structure and contours of legislative and decision-making process.
    People don’t remember this, but when I asked Lawrence Wilkerson to give his now famous October 19th, 2005 speech, it was about the structure of the national security decision-making process and how it had been bastardized and warped during this administration.
    So, Michael Schiffer is right that I take some aspects of legislative performance to be some of the only insights we can get into a Legislator’s executive style, abilities, and yes — judgment.
    But that aside, I found some other stuff when I pulled the string a bit more. Throughout, I was always exceptionally careful to say that I could imagine responses Obama or his team might share that would still put him in good stead and reflect a new, 21st century approach that jumped out of the incrementalism that so many cling to today.
    I asked Michael Schiffer to blog because I like his style and thinking, and we aren’t the same — and don’t see things in the same way, like this question about Obama’s experience and identity.
    Anyway — enough of this from me. I’ve praised Obama frequently for his appreoach to a number of US foreign policy issues, but not all. He gets some stuff wrong — but so do we all.
    But I have to say that some of the issues I dug up, combined with the relatively unimpressive response that came from Senator Obama when he was queried on these issues has disappointed me.
    I haven’t decided who to support yet. I like and dislike things about Obama, Clinton and Edwards. I like Chris Dodd and Joe Biden a lot — a real lot…but the numbers aren’t there. Bill Richardson is not my favorite, but he’s way high on experience — and I agree with him on a ton of issues…
    Anyway, nothing eating me — just parsing like everyone else in this process.
    All the best in ’08,


  10. Vaughan says:

    Something in Steve’s gut is eating at him, because he seems to be trying to find a reason to discount Obama–his life’s travel itinerary, for example, in an earlier post.
    I really liked Obama ever since the 2004 convention speech–this isn’t based on any intense analysis. I guess it’s charisma, and not everyone gets the same out his speeches. On the issues–Obama epitomizes diplomacy to me in a way no other candidate tries. The way he speaks to “friends” about issues they don’t want to hear, the way he speaks of making friends from enemies–that’s the essence of what I think our world needs if it will survive this horrible rush of 7 billion people we’ve given it.
    Lately I’m concerned about the racism issues in the general election–I didn’t think it was an issue but people are bringing it up, and I’m very disappointed that it may be an issue based on some recent conversations. I thought we were more evolved than that.


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