Optics politics: Why Obama skipped the Paris rally with other world leaders

President Obama was slammed in social and traditional media outlets for not joining more than 40 heads of state at a rally Sunday in Paris. A lesson in political optics? 

Social media is awash in criticism of the absence of President Barack Obama and other high-profile US officials from Sunday’s march Paris rally.

As millions stood up for freedom of speech in the face of terrorism after Islamic extremists attacked the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, some say that America’s leadership as a whole, remained disengaged. At least that's the impression it has left.

The British press was not shy with one London Daily Mail headline that shouted, “America snubs historic Paris rally: [Attorney General Eric] Holder was there but skipped out early, [Secretary of State John] Kerry was in India, Obama and [Vice President] Biden just stayed home.”

The New York Daily News was its usually blunt self: "You let the world down" it declared below photos of Obama, Biden, Kerry and Holder. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and British Prime Minister David Cameron were among dozens of world leaders at the Paris rally Sunday, while US officials –  whose schedules are a matter of public record – appeared to have nothing on their agendas and yet failed to appear.

The Daily Mail also pointed out "Holder was in Paris for a terrorism summit on the march's sidelines, but was not seen at the march that followed. No cabinet secretaries or other senior officials attended, leaving only US Ambassador to France Jane Hartley as the top US official there.”

After a long silence on the subject, by Monday afternoon White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: "It's fair to say we should have sent someone with a higher profile."

The Associate Press reports that Earnest suggested the elaborate security apparatus required for presidential travel prohibited President Obama, as well as Mr. Biden, from traveling to Paris on relatively short notice. 

"There's no doubt that had the president or vice president, on this very short time frame, gone to participate in this event that took place outdoors with more than a million people in attendance, that it would have significantly impacted the ability of those who attended the march to participate in the way they did yesterday," Earnest said.

Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Farah Pandith says in a phone interview from her office in Washington, D.C., “It’s definitely an age of image diplomacy and unfortunately people often don’t see beyond that now iconic photo .... Of course, it was hard to see that snapshot of leaders arm-in-arm and not see American leaders we recognize.”

Ms. Pandith was the US State Department's first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities, charged with engagement with Muslims around the world. She was a political appointee by both President George Bush and Obama.

Pandith says that International relations should never boil down to a photo opportunity. But she allows that, absent a rigorous campaign of education and information from The White House, the general public may tend to get wrapped-up in the picture.

That’s what appears to be happening on social media since Obama was absent from the global leaders "class picture" Sunday.

Speculation on the reasons for Obama’s absence appeared to run the Twitter gamut from attacks on the president’s ability to be a world leader to security issues. 

However, others pointed to media reports that among the crowd of over a million people, more than 40 presidents and prime ministers stood in the security nightmare of the streets of Paris on Sunday.

Even Israel's Mr. Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas marched together despite their political differences.

Obviously, images shape perceptions. But Pandith argues that substance matters, and US foreign policy can't and shouldn't be reduced to photos. 

“What many people aren’t seeing is that America, from the very start, has had an unwavering relationship with Paris and with France starting from the moment the Charlie Hebdo attack was known,” says Pandith. “President Obama was the first to call the French president and offer support after the attack on Charlie Hebdo. He went to the French Embassy [in D.C.] right after the attacks.”

While the two nations may be on good terms now, some on Twitter still point to the fact that the days of “Freedom Fries” are not all that far in the past.

Pandith notes that US Ambassador to France Jane Hartley participated in the Paris march and Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary at the Department of Stateand participated in a Washington D.C. march - indications of "powerful" US diplomatic support – "if not faces immediately recognized as such by the average person on Twitter.”

She allows that the White House has some room for improvement in the image and communication department. And while the Obama administration can’t go back in time to insert itself into that now iconic Paris image, it can look for the next opportunity. “I would expect that when Secretary Kerry gets to Paris on Thursday we will see some very powerful images coming out of that visit,” she says. “I would expect a very particular effort be paid to the images that come out of that visit.”

[Editor's note: The original post incorrectly implied that Victoria Nuland marched in Paris]

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