The consensus has formed: President Obama should have visited the border to take a firsthand look at the influx of Central American migrants. Democratic Reps. Luis Gutierrez, Beto O’Rourke, and Henry Cuellar said so over the past week. Democratic political celebrity Wendy Davis, who is running to be governor of Texas, said so, too. Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt includes the blunder in his list of sins that calls for a reshuffling of the top staffers in his administration.
President Obama is already criticized for being too slow to act, aloof, and out of sync with the public. He inhabits a political office, but sniffs at the theatrical requirements required. “This isn’t theater,” he said. “This is a problem. I’m not interested in photo ops, I’m interested in solving a problem.” This episode seems like just another confirming piece of data in a long-term trend. But that’s not right. President Obama will happily engage in a photo op. Here he is at the Key Bridge. Here he sends an unsubtle message to the Russians from a meeting with the Polish president. Here he shoots pool. Yum, barbecue! Tuesday he sat in a simulator car. He pushes his staff to seek out photo ops across the country and he’s asked his Cabinet to travel this summer to engage in their own. The issue is not his unwillingness to engage in this particular form of presidential art. He’s making a choice: when a photo-op isn’t to his advantage, he elevates avoiding it to a high-minded ideal.
The problem for the president, like all presidents, is that he thinks he has a say in the argument over whether a photo op is meaningful or not. He doesn’t. Part of the fix he’s in is of his own making. The blunt formula that equates presidential authority with a presidential visit to the scene of a crisis is one that he exploits when it suits him. So in this case, when the president makes the sensible case that his authority should be deployed to other facets of the problem than the border itself, it’s no surprise people don’t listen.
The bully pulpit is undergoing a radical transformation. Technological changes have made it harder for a president to capture the public conversation. The high level of partisanship—in politics and the media—means that even if a presidential message does get through, it’ll have a pretty thick coating of spin and counterspin before people have a chance to swallow it.
President Obama understands this much, and he has tried to refashion the lines of communication. That’s what the president’s visits to The View and late-night TV shows are about. That’s why the Baltimore Ravens were enlisted to help sell health care reform.
In this world, a picture of the president has enormous power. It can be tweeted and Instagrammed to send a message better than any speech he might deliver. As a second-term president, Obama is more reliant on the photo op than ever because it’s harder for him to get noticed and covered. So the president traveled to Denver last week to meet with people who had written him letters, to send the message that he is focused on the middle class. It was a purely symbolic gesture, an act of total and complete theater.
So no wonder people hear there is a crisis at the border and want to see him there. He’s conditioned them to think that when something is serious, he pays it a visit. If you release pictures of the president in the Situation Room showing he’s on the case in one instance (when maybe you’re trying to milk the drama of the moment), then people are going to expect a Situation Room photograph from the night of the Benghazi attack or from the first night of unrest in Ukraine. A president can’t suddenly get virginal about the theatricality of photo ops when it doesn’t suit him. It rightfully makes us suspicious of him when he does.
But does it make any policy sense to go to the border? There can be good policy reasons for a showy presidential visit. It quickens action. No one leans on his shovel when the president calls. Also, it can send a message of fellow-feeling to those who are suffering, as it did with all of the post-hurricane visits President George W. Bush made, and with the one he didn’t make immediately after Katrina.