If POTUS is uninterested in photo ops, that’s a move in the right direction, whatever his reasons


I continue to make my way through “The West Wing” as I work out each night. The most recent episode was night before last (I got home too late to work out last night) — “Disaster Relief,” episode number 6 in the 5th season.

This was the one when a tornado ripped through Oklahoma, and the president flew to the scene to show his concern. Originally, he wasn’t going to do this, but Press Secretary C.J. Cregg insisted. Once he is there, he gets way too much into it, just exuding compassion all over the place, and extending his stay to the point that even C.J. expresses her disappointment in him that he hasn’t headed back to Washington, where things are falling apart, to do his actual job.

(A side note: This is the 6th episode in the first season not written by Aaron Sorkin, and there has indeed been a dropoff in quality, as I had feared. C.J.’s change of mind isn’t portrayed convincingly. There’s a rather ham-handed slide toward disillusionment on her part over the last few episodes, and I’m getting tired of it. Worse, the nature of my favorite character, the gruff-but-lovable Leo, has changed. The gruffness is there, but the “lovable” part has gone AWOL. Sure, the Leo I know would let Josh know he was displeased, that he had screwed up. But he wouldn’t cold-bloodedly undermine him the way this new Leo did in this episode.)

But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about. What I wanted to talk about was this:

 President Obama on Wednesday forcefully defended his decision not to visit the Texas border with Mexico to view a burgeoning humanitarian crisis, saying he’s “not interested in photo ops” and challenging Congress to give him new authority to respond to the situation.

“Nothing has taken place down there that I’m not intimately aware of,” Obama said during a hastily arranged news conference here, where he began a two-day visit to the state for Democratic fundraising and an economic event. “This is not theater.”…

To which I say, “Amen, Mr. President!” Sometime during the Clinton administration, I got completely fed up with this new role we’ve invented for POTUS, that of Emoter in Chief. I’ve had it up to here with staged demonstrations of concern, or with the nation waiting breathlessly for the president to strike the appropriate tone in a statement about something that has little or nothing to do with his job.

Yes, there is a such a thing as a leadership function, as military officers understand. You walk around checking on your people, making sure they’re fed and bedded down, on the night before the battle. Show that you care.

But folks, we have taken this to an extreme in this country. The president has enough enumerated duties, enough things he really needs to do, without constantly posing for the cameras. Unfortunately, too much of the presidency has become theater, and I like seeing POTUS push back on it a bit.

Yeah, it made him sound cold. And maybe little kids in desperate circumstances on the border isn’t the best place to draw the line. But I’m glad he felt motivated to draw it somewhere — if only out of defensive pique because the Republicans were landing some telling blows on him, which is what seems to have happened.


43 thoughts on “If POTUS is uninterested in photo ops, that’s a move in the right direction, whatever his reasons

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    This “theater” aspect of the presidency was demonstrated by the fact that this political debate over a symbolic gesture was the LEDE story on The Washington Post’s tablet app this morning. (The lede story in the actual PAPER, I was relieved to see, was about Gaza. But this was at the top, just on the left-hand side with a smaller hed.)

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Now, for the other side of the argument, I refer you to this post at The Fix explaining why the president is wrong, and photo ops are important. It’s a well-reasoned piece that makes strong points — none of which I disagreed with.

      It’s just that, in scoffing at photo ops, the president was striking out at something that’s become something of a peeve of mine…

  2. Doug Ross

    Apparently the only photo ops he feels are necessary are those where there are donors paying big bucks to be near him…

    And he somehow was able to play some pool in a bar with the governor of Colorado the other day with plenty of camera coverage.

    And remember the Hurricane Sandy photo ops with Christie? What made those a requirement?

    This is all about politics… the political calculus says that going to Texas now would probably result in more problems for Democrats in the fall midterms. It’s all about votes. Obama is just as much a pandering political animal as any of them.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’m not saying he isn’t. And he’s lashing out rather petulantly on this point. The thing is, he’s lashing out at something that I get irritated with, too, so I’m enjoying it…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      As she said in the column linked above:

      On his state trip to Italy in the spring, he asked to spend time with “interesting Italians.” They were wealthy, famous. The dinner went for four hours. The next morning his staff were briefing him for a “60 Minutes” interview about Ukraine and health care. “One aide paraphrased Obama’s response: ‘Just last night I was talking about life and art, big interesting things, and now we’re back to the minuscule things on politics.’ ”

      Minuscule? Politics is his job.

      When the crisis in Ukraine escalated in March, White House aides wondered if Mr. Obama should cancel a planned weekend golf getaway in Florida. He went. At the “lush Ocean Reef Club,” he reportedly told his dinner companions: “I needed this. I needed the golf. I needed to laugh. I needed to spend time with friends.”

      You get the impression his needs are pretty important in his hierarchy of concerns…

  3. Maggie

    I think photo ops — as symbolic, visual communication — can be important if used sparingly & judiciously. But I disagree with The Fix that “There is very little downside to Obama showing up at the border.” I’d like to think he and his advisors were aware of the message that image would send to mothers in Honduras thinking of sending their children north to be taken care of by President Obama.

  4. Bryan Caskey

    COME ON. President Obama isn’t interested in photo-ops? Please. You don’t really believe that do you? (I assume that’s why the word “If” is the first word of your headline. That’s a big IF.

    Here, in the real world, we call what he said an “excuse”. Even Obama doesn’t really believe it. The man LOVES photo-ops because….wait for it…..he’s a politician!

    It would be like Evel Knievel saying I’m not interested in wearing flashy clothes and jumping over things.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And if Evel Knievel lost interest in wearing flashy clothes and jumping over things, that would have been a positive development, too…

      1. Mayor Benjamin

        (one for the home folks)

        I’m not interested in bringing baseball to Columbia.

  5. Bryan Caskey

    Also, this line: “Nothing has taken place down there that I’m not intimately aware of,” from President Obama is going to be really awkward for the WH Press Secretary as soon as something bad happens.

    Reporter: Why did the President allow [insert bad event] to happen in these detention facilities? He said that he was intimately aware of everything down there. Did he know about [insert bad event]?

    WH Press Secretary: Let me be clear. While being aware of everything at the time he said it, the President wasn’t aware of the [insert bad event] because no one told him about it. When he read about [insert bad event] in the newspaper today, he was madder than anyone else, and he ordered his administration to take immediate steps to correct [insert bad event].

    1. Silence

      Bryan, that was my first thought too when I read that line about him being aware of everything….

  6. Brad Warthen Post author

    I hope I’m being clear that I’m not really taking sides in this back-and-forth between the president and the Republicans.

    I’m just saying that I enjoy seeing some pushback on the “president appearing in public demonstrating the proper emotion thing.” It’s something that is fine in moderation, but we went way beyond moderation years ago.

    I was totally with Leo when he didn’t want Barlet to waste time going to Oklahoma, with everything that was on his plate that day. I booed when C.J. got her way. THAT is the context for my reaction to this Obama thing…

    1. Bryan Caskey

      And I agree in principle. Presidents shouldn’t be interested in photo-ops. They should lead, govern, and generally get important things done. Photo-ops don’t really fall into that category. However, here in the real world, politicians are, in point of fact, interested in photo-ops.

      I really couldn’t care less if President Obama goes to the border or not. It doesn’t matter, either way. What matters is, you know…actually doing stuff to fix the problem. (Which NO ONE is doing.)

      But for him to stand there and say “I’m not interested in photo-ops” is just laughable. No offense implied, but to paraphrase Will Rogers, this is a President who’s never met a photo-op he didn’t like. He’s not “pushing back” on the idea of photo-ops, and if you think he is, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

      If he doesn’t want to go to the border, he should just say so. Heck, I’m certainly not going to the border.

  7. Brad Warthen Post author

    Actually… I just remembered that one of the things Bartlet needed to do, instead of lingering in Oklahoma, was meet with the German chancellor.

    Now, if Obama was meeting with the German chancellor instead of going to the border, I think everybody might agree with me that that’s what he needed to do, what with this ongoing mess. Going to Colorado to hoist a beer doesn’t really fit into the category of “things more urgent than visiting the border,” though…

  8. Brad Warthen Post author

    If y’all will recall, the term “photo opportunity” comes out of the Nixon administration. It’s what Ron Ziegler would offer instead of substantive, meaningful interaction with the press.

    It grew out of the successful 1968 campaign, in which the press was kept at an unprecedented distance from the candidate, as documented in The Selling of the President 1968, by Joe McGinniss.

  9. Bart

    Of course Brad, Democrats were so understanding and friendly toward GWB when he didn’t dash to New Orleans after Katrina like his hair was on fire, right? How is it that since Republicans are going after Obama over a crisis on our borders is so wrong but Democrats skewering GWB was the right thing to do?

    My wife gave me a red “BULL$HIT” button to hit when the occasion calls for it. I just hit it – several times.

    1. Kathryn Braun Fenner

      Um, GWB. asserted, “Heckuva job, Brownie,” while POTUS Obama readily admits the border sitch is bad.

      1. Bart

        Um, very shortly after his remark, GWB also acknowledged the federal response was late. But you might want to remember that Mayor Nagin and the governor told GWB when he offered it, they didn’t need federal assistance before Katrina hit. He spoke too soon and Brownie who had already announced he was leaving his FEMA post was removed early. In the end, the government did what it was supposed to do – and billions have been poured down a black hole in NO and the work is still unfinished. Now, what is POTUS Obama doing about the border children other than attending fund raisers in Texas and turning the problem over to congress to handle? Where the hell is his so called leadership when it is needed? Right, acknowledge the problem, blame someone else, and go play a round of golf.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          Well, Nagin is going to jail….
          Seen Treme? i would say NOLA is still quite a mess, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. Same as this border issue, frankly.

          1. Bart

            No, personally I have not seen Treme. I have a client whose wife is from NO and she visits on a regular basis. The photos and her description of many of the areas hit by Katrina are disturbing after all this time and opportunities to complete the rebuilding required have been totally wasted. Other friends in Mississippi who were hit just as hard have recovered without the fanfare, racist accusations, and graft present in NO.

            As for Nagin, he is finally getting what he deserves for his actions well before Katrina.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Well, TONIGHT he refused to let that uppity new speaker do a bait-and-switch with him on the budget. So next episode, the government will be shut down.

  10. Brad Warthen Post author

    I’d like to have seen more discussion of the point that Maggie raised, early in this discussion — which was ignored by everyone but me:

    I think photo ops — as symbolic, visual communication — can be important if used sparingly & judiciously. But I disagree with The Fix that “There is very little downside to Obama showing up at the border.” I’d like to think he and his advisors were aware of the message that image would send to mothers in Honduras thinking of sending their children north to be taken care of by President Obama.

    How about that, folks? It’s hard to imagine POTUS interacting with those children in any way that wouldn’t look kind and understanding on camera. And isn’t it likely that such images would exacerbate the situation. When mothers in Central America saw it, they would say, “¡Mira! El presidente da la bienvenida a nuestros hijos con bondad y generosidad…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Let me confess, up front, that I used Google Translate for that. And I’m entirely sure it’s right. I was expecting it to translate “children” as “niños.” But instead, it went with “hijos.” I didn’t like that because “hijos” in this context actually means “sons and daughters” (feminists haven’t gotten ahold of Spanish yet, so masculine forms are still assumed to be generic and inclusive), meaning it could refer to adult children, and I wanted to stress CHILDREN children.

      But when I experimented, Translate turns “children” into “niños,” but “our children” into “nuestros hijos.” I decided I was running into an idiomatic distinction I didn’t fully understand (a sort of broad sense of “our children” as the descendants of a people, just as we refer to the founders of a society or faith as “our fathers”), and left it alone…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I wish I’d trained as a linguist. Or etymologist, or philologist. Who knows? Maybe I’d still have a job in the field for which I had trained. Or not. I’m not sure how good that job market is.

        I just know that, based on what little I know about languages — my professional dealings with English, the Spanish I spoke fluently as a child, my two years of Latin, that one semester of German, the French and Russian and bits of Arabic and other languages you absorb through the global culture — I know that I love words, and am utterly fascinated by them. Comparative study of various languages makes me realize things about my own, things that delight. It can make my day to suddenly have insight into a word I’ve known all my life without truly understanding where it came from.

        For a very simple example from childhood, consider “breakfast.” I was in third grade or so, and that was part of a spelling or vocabulary lesson. At first, I was taken aback that it was on the list — EVERYONE knew that word and how to spell it, right? But when it was explained to me that it meant to BREAK one’s FAST, it was like a bright light going on in a room that had always been dark. I thought it was SO cool.

        I guess I was kind of a geek…

    2. Bryan Caskey

      That’s an interesting point. However, I’m not sure how much pictures of the President will actually increase/decrease the amount of children been sent to the Texas border. The President could still be compassionate in images broadcast around the world and close the border. Then it doesn’t really matter what the parents in Guatemala do.

      By the way, how bad to things have to be in your country to simply send your kids on trek from Central America to the Texas border? Pretty bad, I’m guessing. But that’s a different discussion.

      It’s like we have a gaping wound that is gushing blood. It doesn’t do any good to continually wipe up the blood with a napkin if you don’t close the wound at some point. If you don’t close the wound, eventually, the guy bleeds to death, even if you keep wiping up the blood. What you do is close the wound tightly ASAP, and then wipe up the blood.

      The children here are not the problem – they are the result of the problem.

      I don’t know why everyone thinks this problem is so complicated. Seal the border. Effectively. Reduce the amount of people illegally entering the country to a de minimus amount, and then you can deal with who is already here in a fair manner.

      If you’re not in favor of effectively sealing the border, you’re either an advocate for open borders (a/k/a you’re wrong) or you’re not serious.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        But Bryan, how do you envision this working: “The President could still be compassionate in images broadcast around the world and close the border.”

        What would be the effect of “closing the border” to these children? I picture them piling up in northern Mexico, unable to cross the border and with nowhere to go. That would be a WORSE humanitarian crisis, and it would be the direct result of our actions….

        1. Bryan Caskey

          The effect of closing the border could conceivably be that all the moms in Guatemala would likely stop sending their children to hike hundreds of miles to Texas.

          Mexico would have to deal with the children from other countries that entered into Mexico. Mexico could either keep them or send them back from whence they came.

          People respond to incentives. It’s basic. If you signal to people in Guatemala that children can come to Texas and will not be deported for a year or two, they’re going to send their children here. If you signal to people in Guatemala that the border to Texas is closed, and kids can’t just mosey into Texas, they won’t send them.

          Mexico could conceivably decide to stop being a conduit because they won’t simply want children from Guatemala to pile up in Mexico. It will likely become tougher for a Guatemalan child to get into Mexico.

          Or we could just open up the border to everyone in Central America. That’s another way to go.

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          I was just reading this Slate piece, and reflecting on a couple or three (or four) things…
          — How well-equipped do we think Mexico is to deal with such a humanitarian crisis?
          — Mexico is already doing what you suggest — sending lots of people back to Central America in big numbers.
          — Do we really want to condemn children to retracing the horrific treks that they took to get to our border?
          — Trying to wall off America from a regional crisis of violence seems a bit like Prince Prospero’s futile effort to shut out the world in “The Masque of the Red Death.”

          1. Bryan Caskey

            Now you’re talking more about the root cause of why people are so desperate to come to the USA. In a broad sense, life is worse in Central America. Let’s leave it at that. Ok, what can the USA do about it? A little maybe, but not much. Those countries are sovereign countries that have to deal with their own problems. Maybe we can exercise some counsel, maybe some foreign aid, but in the end, it’s up to those countries to improve the lives of their citizens. I’m not suggesting the USA wall itself off from the problems in Central America, but I’m not sure we can solve the world’s problems, either.

            What I am suggesting is that we have a process for immigration that doesn’t consist of people randomly streaming across the border without any sort of process or protocol for who gets in, when, or why. What we currently have is chaos. I’m not saying don’t let anyone in. I’m saying let’s let people in on our own terms, according to procedures that we (as American citizens) agree upon. I’m all for immigration. I don’t know anyone who’s not in favor of immigration. I’m in favor of people coming to America seeking a better life.

            However, I’m not in favor of people coming into America unilaterally. There’s a process that has to be respected and followed. Anyone who doesn’t respect that process and just decides that they’re above the law is already down a few notches with me. To allow people from Central America to selfishly flout our rule of law invites disrespect for the law. I’m sure the conditions in Central America are bad. And I’m sure that some people want to leave. But we have a process.

            Part of having this process is stopping the chaos. So…yes. I’m suggesting that we wall our selves off from people who would simply ignore our process. However, I am proposing that we have an open-door policy. We’re going to have a process for who gets through the door. And you’re going to have to stand in line. Other people want to get in, too.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Actually, I don’t think these people see themselves as “above the law.” It would probably be more accurate that they see themselves as “below the law.” They probably see law as something that serves people above them, in a social class sense. These are not people who sit around discussing the importance of the rule of law with well-educated friends. They’re just trying to make do, survive. And they’ll walk across any barrier that presents itself, if it gets in the way of that.

            2. Bryan Caskey

              But horrible conditions are not exactly new to Central America. So, the new variable isn’t what’s happening down there, it’s what’s happened up here.

Comments are closed.