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A.B. Stoddard: Time to act presidential

Anne Wernikoff

Perhaps President Obama might consider it his duty to act presidential, even if it is just acting. He could acknowledge that Americans find it comforting and appropriate for their president to be present in a crisis, let alone during many at once, and not simply speaking to a bank of cameras stationed outside some incongruous setting, where he is conducting far less important presidential work far from the White House.

Now that the commander in chief must focus his energy on wars in Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Ukraine, even as the humanitarian crisis worsens on our border, it might be time for Obama to attempt a sober façade that doesn’t involve billiards, burgers or beers.

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The president’s aides claim each staggering problem can be handled from the road, where Obama is fundraising with Silicon Valley donors and meeting with Americans to connect his domestic policy agenda to the plight of the middle class. In these gatherings, Obama is posing for the kind of photo ops he spoke contemptuously of when he refused to visit the southern Texas border while fundraising in the Lone Star State two weeks ago. 

Even his loyal supporters agree privately that our mobile manager in chief is, at least in appearance, phoning in the most important job in the world. 

Last weekend, The Washington Post reported the administration knew since 2012 that the influx of Central American immigrants was burgeoning and untenable. But officials refused to address it because of political concern that the crisis would kill off the already faint hope of passing comprehensive immigration reform in the 113th Congress, the report said. Meanwhile, the president was playing golf. 

Monday it was heartening to watch Obama award Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts the Medal of Honor for his heroic and selfless service in Afghanistan, but then the president flew off to California for more fundraising. A scheduled stop to make an appearance with comedian Jimmy Kimmel was canceled at the last minute by Obama aides or perhaps the president himself, who upon greater reflection saw that appearing on the show that night could be considered unseemly. 

There was the possibility that Kimmel could ask about the BuzzFeed story titled “Snoop Dogg Says He Got High at the White House,” or maybe the White House suddenly worried Kimmel could pop a question like, “The world has never been less stable in your lifetime, Mr. President, what the hell are you doing here?” 

Spokesman Josh Earnest conceded the cancellation was “at least in part related to the challenges of doing a comedy show in the midst of some of these other serious matters.” Better late than never for that epiphany.
Yet, pummeled day in and day out by the same old tired questions about “optics,” White House staffers and their boss seem to delight in doubling down on presidential prerogatives. 

Earnest insists because the president has his own plane and dedicated phone lines that “he has access to the information and technology necessary to represent American interests in the midst of these challenging international times.” And last weekend Jennifer Palmieri, White House communications director, told The New York Times that canceling previously planned events on the president’s schedule might be too frightening for all of us to handle. “It’s rarely a good idea to return to the White House just for show, when the situation can be handled responsibly from the road,” she said, adding that “abrupt changes to his schedule can have the unintended consequence of unduly alarming the American people or creating a false sense of crisis.”

False or real, there is a sense of crisis in America and around the world. And pundits aren’t the only ones taking note of Obama’s schedule. Allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and foes like Russian President Vladimir Putin do, too.

 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.