'Sire, the peasants are revolting!' Obama's amazing problem with political optics
"Sire," the nobleman urgently reports to the throne, "the peasants are revolting!"
"Phewee!" the king responds in the vaudeville sketch, "You're telling me."
For security reasons mainly, every modern U.S. president lives apart from average Americans.
Yes, George Washington refused to shake hands with fellow citizens. But Thomas Jefferson quickly took up that democratic habit. Two presidents have been assassinated shaking hands and Andrew Jakcson would have been had the pistols not misfired. Shaking hands has now become such an expected political staple that campaigning pols must often soak their hands of an evening to relieve the pain from so many citizen grips.
Most presidents do try to play down their apartness and not appear, well, royal. Remember all the mocking of Richard Nixon's proposed martinette White House guard uniforms? Royals are, after all, the folks we threw out in a revolution more than two centuries ago.
But, wow, what has gone wrong with the Optics Czar in the Obama White House?
The current president is a Real Good Talker. But the current White House crowd, which counts on its public connections to....
President Obama was scheduled to receive an award this afternoon in the middle of Sunshine Week from a coalition of good government groups for his much-promised policy of government transparency. Strangely, this award for government openness was to include only photographers. So, no meddlesome media questions.
Worse, the transparency award was scheduled for a day when every other presidential activity was closed to the media and public. Not the best context and an obvious invitation to "wait-one-minute-stories" like this.
In terms of information opennesss earlier this week the Associated Press reported:
People requested information 544,360 times last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act from the 35 largest agencies, up nearly 41,000 more than the previous year, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of new federal data. But the government responded to nearly 12,400 fewer requests.
Weirdly the administration even censored e-mails about its openness:
The Obama administration censored 194 pages of internal e-mails about its Open Government Directive that the AP requested more than one year ago.
The December 2009 directive requires every agency to take immediate, specific steps to open their operations up to the public. But the White House Office of Management and Budget blacked-out entire pages of some e-mails between federal employees discussing how to apply the new openness rules, and it blacked-out one e-mail discussing how to respond to AP's request for information about the transparency directive.
OK, maybe that's inside baseball for some. Other Obama optics have been skewed recently. He appoints Joe Biden to head negotiations over a continuing federal spending extension and cuts because they are of paramount importance; Joe meets once, then flies off to Finland, Russia and Moldova for a working week. He phones back twice from Russia but can't reach Harry Reid.
Last Friday Americans woke to the horrific sight of that ocean wave wiping out thousands of lives and homes in Japan. Fresh from still studying what if anything to do about Libya and his White House conference on bullying, the president, of course, expressed sympathy and offered help to our most important Asian alliy.
But his opening news conference message involved gas prices.
Amid all the international turmoil came Saturday morning's weekly messages from each political party. Republicans called for fewer Obama drilling moratoriums and more domestic oil development. Obama celebrated Women's History Month.
Saturday with all the international turmoil and no firm Libya policy decisions yet from the White House, Obama hit the golf course for the 61st time. (No photos allowed.)
This isn't an unusual Obama phenomenon. Throughout 2009 when polls showed jobs and the economy the top national concern, Obama drove his healthcare initiative relentlessly. And those who supported him in Congress paid a steep price in last November's midterm voting.
Biden has twice met with the administration's chief of transparency--and closed the session.
As he did for last week's White House gathering with top union leaders, something that used to drive Sen. Biden crazy when the previous vice president did it with energy officials.
Obama aides boast of opening visitor logs as never before. But recent news media reports told of White House officials scheduling meetings elsewhere to avoid the log.
Michelle Obama has chosen healthier eating and more physical activity as her admirable first lady cause. But the public White House menus for Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl party could easily cause comas.
The frequent White House parties allegedly celebrating American music also produce well-dressed photos of the Obamas and celebrities hobnobbing in elegance while national unemployment hovers by 9% or worse and Obama notoriously suggested Americans who needed to cut back might postpone their vacation.
Last summer as her husband urged Americans to vacation on the troubled Gulf coast despite the massive oil spill, Mrs. Obama flew off to Spain with a large entourage to take over much of a luxury resort. The Obamas did spend a night later on the Gulf (see swimming photo) before themselves vacationing in New England and then North Carolina and then Hawaii for the holidays. Sunday Obama and family leave for Rio de Janeiro.
As a nod to today's goof, the White House announced the transparency award ceremony had been canceled due to "changes" in the president's plans, adding it would be re-scheduled. Don't hold your breath.
Taken individually -- like Mrs. Obama notoriously wearing $600 tennis shoes to a food bank event -- these acts can seem minor gaffes. Everyone expects a president to relax or exercise or stage elegant parties. But in the broader context of events nowadays such a blatant pattern of persistent insensitivity comes across as, at best, just plain stupid, or possibly brazenly indifferent. We're here and you're not.
Not the best theme heading into a reelection season.
With the impending nuclear meltdown, two wars and everything else going on, however, you'll be relieved to know that President Obama did complete his NCAA basketball brackets on time -- and on-camera, of course. And he made tonight's Democratic Party fundraiser too.
Obama thinks Kansas will win the championship.
-- Andrew Malcolm
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Photos: Pete Souza / White House