You know, I have. Although, like Isaac Chotiner, I think there’s more to it than mere contempt for his audience’s intelligence.
You need to read the piece for a full slate of examples but essentially Chotiner’s zeroing in on O’s patented pros-and-cons Thoughtful Guy non-answer. Did you know that there are two sides to most vexing policy problems and that hard choices are usually required? You did? Well, let the president remind you a few thousand times anyway:
The reason he does this, I would argue, is that he is more interested in telling us how he thinks than what he thinks. His defense of the NSA, for example, has largely rested on his statements that he and his team are trustworthy and thoughtful people. And here he is, to Remnick, on the use of drones, primarily in Pakistan and Yemen:
“Look, you wrestle with it,” Obama said. “And those who have questioned our drone policy are doing exactly what should be done in a democracy—asking some tough questions. The only time I get frustrated is when folks act like it’s not complicated and there aren’t some real tough decisions, and are sanctimonious, as if somehow these aren’t complicated questions. Listen, as I have often said to my national-security team, I didn’t run for office so that I could go around blowing things up.”
Again, this isn’t really an answer. It is a description of Obama’s mind. He “wrestles with it.” He knows that democracies function through a civil society. These are “tough decisions.” Obama didn’t run for office so he could go to war—hence he must hate using drones, and so we should trust his instincts when he does want to use them. This answer, too, started with a more grounded (pardon the pun) defense of drones, in which he stated that they actually lower civilian casualties. But that wasn’t enough; he had to explain his process.
The Thoughtful Guy shtick is ultimately an accountability dodge. I made a similar point last year, inspired by the same subject, after O’s windy speech on U.S. drone policy. He’d gotten cross-wise with his lefty base on that but clearly wasn’t about to renounce the practice. What could he say to get them off his back while letting them know he had no intention of changing his ways? Answer: Reassure them that, contra Bush, he had done his intellectual duty in arriving at his policy. He’d considered all the angles, made all the devil’s-advocate arguments against drone strikes, but couldn’t talk himself out of it. Even if you disagreed with him, you could trust that he’d made a fully informed, responsible decision. That’s the message of his presidency in a two-word nutshell, from drones to the NSA to the various executive power grabs of the past two years: “Trust me.” His motives, he’s eager to emphasize, are honest — how could they not be when he’s willing to carefully consider his opponents’ arguments? — so you should feel comfortable giving him the benefit of the doubt. And the thing is, it works. Follow the last link to see how the New Yorker fell for the Thoughtful Guy routine. When your policy pitch frequently boils down to “trust me,” you’ve got every reason to reassure your critics at length that you thought hard before making your move. In that sense, O’s more like a judge than a president: Courts justify their rulings with long written opinions because they’re not accountable the way most political figures are. They get their legitimacy not from being elected but from demonstrating that their opinions were carefully considered. O, unusually for an elected official, follows a similar practice — or at least, he does for the left, since they’re bound by basic partisanship not to hold him accountable the way independents and Republicans try to.
And that’s in keeping, of course, with the cult of personality that defined his run in 2008. There were policies like ObamaCare that you could expect to get if you voted for him, but Hopenchange was always mostly about the man himself — an historic presidency, a new optimism after Bush, a “first-class temperament” that would seek pragmatic solutions instead of partisan ones. Against that backdrop, why wouldn’t he justify his toughest decisions with an elaborate version of “trust me”? And in his semi-defense, what better answer is he supposed to give to some of these problems? They’re judgment calls. Like Chotiner says, we all understand the pros and cons of drone strikes; Obama, like virtually any future president from either party, has decided he’d rather err on the side of liquidating bad guys even if it means accidentally killing innocents because it’ll help him prove in the event of a new attack on the U.S. that he did everything he could to prevent it. Critics disagree with that calculation. What’s he supposed to say to persuade them on a moral quandary as excruciating as that one except reassure them that he really does understand their concerns? Between partisan polarization, intractable policy problems, and the vast ocean of low-information voters who likely don’t blink at this stuff, I’m thinking the Thoughtful Guy routine won’t end in the White House when Obama’s presidency does.