Anyone who has blogged or indeed done any form of journamalism for very long has published things they regret, so it’s a bit unfair to focus too much on particular lapses of judgment by a good writers, especially whenever such authors, like Job and Robert McNamara, abhor themselves and repent (sort of).
So the point here isn’t to bash anyone in particular, but rather to focus on the substance of the claim that it makes sense to trust Barack Obama’s judgment over your own because he’s supposedly smarter, better informed, better able to understand the the consequences of his actions, and more far-sighted than you are.
On at least one level I would like to believe this is true — few people are completely immune to the attractions of authoritarianism, and it would be pretty to think that our leaders are at heart good parents, who want only the best for the sometimes wayward children they protect and defend.
But I would also like to think that when I became a man I put aside childish things, and a child-like trust in the authorities is one of those things.
So in general I don’t trust Barack Obama’s judgment over my own, and I see no reason to do so. The reasons given for doing so really come down to two: he’s smarter and better-informed than I am (I take “better able to understand the consequences of his actions” and “more far-sighted” as just specific examples of, respectively, having better information and being smarter).
But is this true? In what sense is Obama “smarter” than me (or you?). It’s become a platitude that intelligence comes in many forms, but it’s a platitude precisely because it’s true. Now it so happens that Obama’s demonstrated forms of intelligence — doing well in school and being a fluent writer — are ones we share. It also happens that the value of that kind of intelligence for the purposes of political leadership, while not negligible, tends to be overstated by fluent writers who did well in school. (In terms of sheer analytical intelligence, two of the top three presidents were probably Wilson and Nixon, who are also two of the very worst). Anyway, the claim that Obama can be trusted to make good decisions because he’s “smart” depends, to put it mildly, on a great deal of faith-based reasoning in regard to both his general intelligence and especially in regard to the degree to which the specific sort of intelligence he possesses translates into being a good leader.
Then there’s the claim that Obama is “better informed.” This could mean he’s better informed in general — better educated and possessing greater relevant experience — or it can mean more knowledgeable regarding the specific issue at hand. The first claim is weak. Obama’s education was a typical one for members of the professional classes in contemporary America, and his relevant experience for the office of the presidency was unusually slender for someone in his position. So, in my view, “trusting” Obama about Libya or Guantanamo or anything else comes down to the claim that he is privy to information that makes his judgment more trustworthy than yours or mine. Now obviously this is by nature an untestable proposition — the evidence for it being the kind of evidence that ex hypothesi isn’t available to you and me — but it’s worth noting that this is precisely the same claim that was made for why people should trust George W. Bush to “keep us safe” by locking people up forever without trials and torturing some of them in the bargain.
It goes without saying that a president is going to have access to some information that isn’t available to ordinary citizens (it should also go without saying that presidents are constantly trying to expand the extent of that information gap). But in the end, decisions such as whether to place people in “indefinite detention” rather than charging them with crimes and putting them on trial, or whether to engage in unilateral warfare in the pursuit of this or that supposedly crucial national interest or universal value, are at bottom matters of principle more than of pragmatic judgment. And on that score, there’s not the slightest reason to think that Barack Obama’s judgment is to be trusted any more than George W. Bush’s was — especially given the striking similarities in many of their policies regarding the central political and moral questions of their respective administrations.