By Amie Parnes - 07/21/14 09:36 PM EDT
The crises in Ukraine and Gaza have created new problems for a White House that has sought to project President Obama as above politics.
Obama is being slammed by critics for stopping for burgers in Delaware and then speaking at Democratic fundraisers hours after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing 298 people.
Earnest defended last week’s stop for burgers and said there were no plans to change Obama’s agenda.
“What the president is focused on is his ability to do his job,” he said.
Asked if it was a mistake to allow Obama to stop by a burger joint in Delaware for lunch after the plane went down in Ukraine, Earnest said: “It was not.”
He went on to note that Obama made calls to the Ukrainian president, the Malaysian prime minister and the Dutch prime minister, along with chatting with Secretary of State John Kerry and his national security team on a secure call.
Obama, the White House spokesman concluded, was able to “fulfill his responsibilities as commander in chief and as the leader of this country from the road.”
Ever since his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama’s advisers have sought to portray the president as a man who is cool under pressure and unwilling to rip up his schedule in reaction to domestic or foreign crises.
The no-drama Obama persona was practically created during the financial crisis of 2008, when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) suspended his presidential campaign as stock markets plummeted and the nation’s economy shed hundreds of thousands of jobs. Obama’s cool response to the crisis during an October 2008 meeting in Washington impressed Democrats and Republicans alike, and the whole episode helped cement his resounding Electoral College victory weeks later.
But that same coolness and refusal to bend to breaking events by making changes to his schedule has also led to criticism of the White House, and created an image of an aloof president out-of-touch with what’s important.
“You have to wonder, is he reading any of his reviews?” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor at Boston University who specializes in political communication.
He questioned the optics of stopping for burgers shortly after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed, or golfing amid the immigration crisis.
“I don’t think anybody begrudges the president some time off and some vacation time. It’s just, when you’ve got bodies strewn all over a field, and our borders being overrun, it doesn’t play well.”
Familiar critics have been all over Obama’s recent optics.
National Journal’s Ron Fournier penned a piece with the headline “Is the White House lying or Just Bad at Crisis Communications?” in response to the burger stop.
“Don’t tolerate this,” Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt told viewers on Monday. “This is ridiculous.”
Obama and his advisers, for their part, show no signs of changing their strategy.
The president said he was “not interested in photo-ops” when he was asked why he didn’t visit the border during a trip to Texas earlier this month.
And last week, when the president was criticized for not returning to the White House after the Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down, White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri told The New York Times, “it is rarely a good idea to return to the White House just for show when the situation can be handled responsibly from the road.”
One former senior administration official took it a step further and slammed the criticism Obama has received as “silly.”
“I can understand if this was a U.S. plane, and he was out fundraising, yes,” the former official said. “But he demonstrated that he was on top of the situation and has ever since.”
Obama’s busy public schedule on Monday included several events unrelated to Ukraine or the Middle East crisis, though the White House added public remarks about Flight 17 to the schedule on Monday morning.
In the morning, the president signed an executive order intended to protect gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination and attended a town hall on the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative meant to improve education for African-American and Hispanic children. In the afternoon, he presented the Medal of Honor to Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts.
Obama has doggedly pursued his golf hobby on weekends, regardless of how the optics might appear, with aides saying it is valuable for the president to get some time to relax.
He and his family are scheduled to go to Martha’s Vineyard for a 2-week vacation in August. It will be the second year in a row that the Obamas head to the Massachusetts island. The president chose not to go there during his 2012 reelection race.
Earnest on Monday did leave the door open for a possible change in Obama’s schedule in the coming days.
If it becomes “clear that there’s a need for him to come back to the White House to fulfill those functions, then we’ll make a change in his schedule. Right now, it’s not apparent that that’s the case,” he said.