Obama Conditioned Us to Expect Photo Ops. He Can’t Change Our Expectations When It Suits Him.

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July 15 2014 3:39 PM

Photo-Ready

Obama has conditioned us to think theatrical photo ops are meaningful. He can’t expect us to think differently when it suits him.

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There’s also a case that a president learns something from an emergency visit, but it’s not a strong case. A president must be able to act without seeing something firsthand, particularly when moving a president outside of the White House compound is such a production. It’s a crucial job skill, so it’s silly to think he’s not acting if he’s working from home.

Perhaps a visit to the home countries these children are leaving would have been interesting. It seems to have been effective for a Republican congressional delegation that just returned from there. But none of the lawmakers who have visited the border has returned with any potent revelations. They have mostly used the trip as a stage to assert their pre-existing views. Sen. Obama was certainly familiar with this stunt. He did it with a visit to Iraq during his first presidential campaign. It’s an effective communications tool, but it’s not an information-gathering tool. 

In this case, President Obama probably wants to avoid the type of feel-good message that photo ops are intended to convey. Indeed, that kind of message would likely backfire. “You have the president surrounded by little 7-year-olds, and it’s an emotional picture,” says Diana Negroponte, a public policy scholar and Latin America expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “It says to Mama and Papa, ‘We have this wonderful president. He will take care of them.’ ”

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Instead, says Negroponte, the president should be sending the opposite message to the parents in their home country: The children will return. If that ultimately is the message the president does send by approving a faster deportation process, it’s easier for him to do so if he hasn’t had to look these young people in the eye in a big public photo op.

A veteran Democratic strategist explains that looking hard-hearted in that way has a clear political downside: It will upset a part of the president’s base and damage the Democratic Party’s advantage over Republicans on the question of which party is more empathetic toward Latinos in an election year when the deck is already stacked against the party. A visit to the border also has other political downsides White House aides were considering when they decided not to send Obama there last week when he was in Texas. It risks validating the separate Republican argument about the primacy of border security that has been a part of the larger immigration debate. The White House and Democrats argue that this current crisis is not a result of a porous border, but other factors, including violence in the countries these children are fleeing.

The fastest plausible way to send a message back to these home countries, say members of both parties, is if buses start returning with migrants who have not been allowed into the United States. That will happen faster if Congress amends the 2008 law that treats children from Central America differently than migrants from Mexico. Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas have introduced legislation shortening the length of detention hearings. It would send immigration judges to border cities with the hopes of quickening the process for determining whether minors had a legal claim to stay in the United States. 

Presidential visits are effective when they quicken action, but they also raise the expectation of action. A presidential visit to the border with no quick fix to announce runs the risk of increasing the impression the president is helpless in a crisis. If action from Congress, whether in the Cornyn-Cuellar legislation or of some other shape, is needed, then a more effective presidential photo op than a visit to the border would be a visit to Congress.

Another alternative photo op would be a picture of the president on the phone with the president of Mexico. “The president needs to call the Mexican president and say, ‘Neighbor, we need your help,’ ” says Negroponte. “ ‘The passage of this many children needs your help to stop it.’ ” Negroponte argues that the crisis—which includes the deaths of children who did not make it to the border—could not be happening without the complicity of Mexican authorities.

President Obama has suggested that he might have preferred a photo op of a White House signing ceremony for comprehensive immigration reform, which Republicans in the House have refused to address. Perhaps, but that’s too cute. The president knows that comprehensive immigration reform is not going to be born out of this crisis in time to address the crisis. If anything, Republicans who have been counseling a go-slow approach now have more momentum. The surge of cases at the border helps them make the case that well-intentioned laws have unintended consequences. The president is trying to deflect the political damage of the current crisis back on Republicans by reminding voters of their weakness. If he’s going to play that game, then Republicans might as well play the photo-op game.

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