Japan. Libya. The deficit. Did Obama have time to go on ESPN?
After Obama announced his 'bracket' choices on live TV, he drew fire from Republicans for not focusing more on world crises and the deficit. Was his ESPN appearance a bit of March Madness?
(Page 2 of 2)
White House staffs try to stick to the schedule as much as possible. But “you can get handcuffed to it,” said Tony Fratto, a former spokesman in the George W. Bush White House, on MSNBC Thursday. He noted all the “assets” that go into preparing for travel – whether it’s across the Potomac or halfway around the world – and all the effort that is wasted by a canceled trip. And, Mr. Fratto adds, the White House doesn’t want to be always in “crisis mode.”Skip to next paragraph
For Obama, this week’s persistence in sticking to his script has revived the larger questions about his “no drama” style of leadership. During his 2008 campaign, he was applauded for keeping calm and steady, not getting too low when things went wrong or too excited when things were going well. As president, that has turned into a perception of passivity that leaves some observers – even sympathetic ones – scratching their heads.
Ruth Marcus, a liberal columnist for The Washington Post, has dubbed this the “Where’s Waldo? presidency” – a characterization that has caught on in public discourse.
“There are a startling number of occasions in which the president has been missing in action – unwilling, reluctant, or late to weigh in on the issue of the moment,” Ms. Marcus wrote March 2, citing health-care reform, entitlement reform, the Wisconsin union showdown, and Libya.
Some of the obsessing with every moment of Obama’s schedule may be a function of the perpetual news cycle, where the media – particularly cable TV – have gobs of time and space to fill, and make mountains out of mole hills. Health-care reform did, after all, pass.
On entitlement reform, Obama appears to be engaged in a calculated game of chicken with the Republicans, intentionally withholding specific proposals that could damage his reelection prospects. His reluctance to get overly involved in the Libyan conflict is logical, given the complicated image of the US in the Middle East – and its ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Wisconsin, he seemed determined to leave that battle up to the labor movement and not make it a Washington issue.
After fielding criticism for weighing in too freely on issues of the day in his first two years as president, Obama is being applauded by Democrats for his more disciplined approach.
“In the State of the Union, he promised a focus on education and technology, and he has stuck with the program,” says Peter Fenn, a Democratic communications strategist.
“If this was a guy who wasn’t paying attention and didn’t have his facts straight and was kind of clueless in the job, then OK,” says Mr. Fenn. “Who thinks that this is someone who isn’t plugged in 24/7? He clearly is.”
Maybe appearing on ESPN in a light-hearted moment of “Barack-etology” was overly frivolous, given the images coming out of Japan. But as the one-term President Carter learned, allowing yourself to appear humorless and consumed by crisis doesn’t do anyone any good. It all boils down to finding that sweet spot of public engagement with major events – not too hot, not too cold.
So maybe it’s OK that the Obama White House followed its St. Patrick’s Day tradition of dying the water in the big outdoor fountain green. And, in keeping with the media’s tendency to over-analyze everything the White House does, it has even been deemed “sufficiently green.”