Judgment: What to Look for When Looking for a President

The long campaign for the presidency helps us evaluate candidates against what it takes to lead -- if we know what to look for. Donald Trump's trinity is "strength, power and stamina." He regularly castigates opponents for being weak and lacking energy. We can assess these in candidates if for no other reason than that their absence makes it hard to get to the nomination. Strength, power and stamina do matter, but they are by no means enough.

Judgment is harder to observe on the campaign trail, but even more important in a president. George Washington had it. Urged by both Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans to side with England or France, respectively, in their seemingly interminable wars, he opted for neutrality, calculated to gain time for the fledgling United States to gain strength to stand on its own. John Adams had it when he bucked his own party to make peace with France, even though it led to his re-election defeat. Lincoln had it when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, not only because it was morally right but because it swelled the ranks of the Union army with 200,000 black soldiers essential to victory. Eisenhower had it when he refused the pleas of his own advisors to use nuclear weapons in China, Korea, and Vietnam and then crafted a containment strategy that lasted nearly four decades, long enough for the Soviet Union implode on its own.

By contrast, Kennedy lacked judgment when he allowed the Bay of Pigs invasion to go forward, without adequate policy review and operational questioning of the military and CIA. Johnson lacked it when he escalated the Vietnam War, a move certainly in line with his own love of strength, power and stamina. George W. Bush lacked it when he went into Iraq without a strategy for what to do after "mission accomplished," another demonstration that strength and power without judgment are dangerous in a president's hands.

Judgment is not the same thing as intelligence. All presidents are smart, but not all blend that with a deep understanding of history, people, places and politics. Judgment is the ability to act prudently -- to make decisions using what Aristotle called "practical wisdom." It is being guided by the emerging lessons of experience, not the rigid walls of ideology. Washington was a revolutionary, but when the Revolution ended, unceasing hatred of England and unquestioned love of France were no longer prudent, even if they were still popular.

Judgment is a matter of how one structures decision making. It requires questioning assumptions and surrounding yourself with people who will disagree with you, ensuring you hear all sides of an argument. It requires protecting those dissenting voices. Kennedy learned this in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis, demonstrating that the ability to learn from mistakes is also a hallmark of presidential judgment.

Judgment also depends on character, which Calvin Coolidge rightly called "the only secure foundation of the state." Character depends on the ability to strike the golden mean in one's behavior between the extremes which are dangerous for any human and disastrous in a president. As Aristotle noted, we need courage, not cowardice or its polar opposite, recklessness. We need "right ambition" not listlessness and not a desire for power at any cost. We need humility, not self-abnegation -- but not hubris either.

The media are eager partners in showcasing strength, power and stamina in candidates. But assessing judgment depends not only on what we see but on what is beneath the surface. It rests on what is not said -- as well as what is -- in speeches, debates and rallies. It rests on how a candidate thinks and engages with issues and advisors. But it is accessible. We can see its presence when we evaluate the soundness not just the glitz of a candidate's positions. Are they backed with facts not just hopes, with logical strategies not just attractive sound bites? We can see its absence in candidates who are overly ideological, abhor dissent, or demonstrate traits of recklessness, cowardice, hubris, or self-centered narcissism.

When Harry Truman recalled Gen. Douglas MacArthur from Korea in April 1951, the five-star general returned as a conquering hero, with a ticker tape parade and the bipartisan applause of a joint session of Congress. His military success was almost unparalleled. Truman was denounced, and his approval rating sank to 23 percent. MacArthur was the epitome of strength, power, and stamina. Yet in openly defying Truman's instructions on how to prosecute the war to keep it from escalating, he demonstrated poor judgment. He was tone deaf to executive authority, Constitutional history, and international politics. His ego over-rode the prudence demanded of a military leader and the deference due as a subordinate. Truman's judgment was sound in relieving him of command, and he is now regularly ranked among the top ten presidents in polls.

Sound judgment is by no means the only capability essential in a president, but it is the one capability whose absence we accept at our peril.