President Obama surely has more than 99 problems — but here's one: He doesn't feel the need to even look like he gives a damn, even as parts of the world all but crumble on his watch.
Obama is obviously smart and emotionally evolved — and maybe that's why he's embraced the "no drama" ethos so tightly. He never looks worried. His face never evinces concern. His voice never quivers. His body language doesn't change. At all. He walks at the same languid pace regardless of the situation.
You might think this evenness is a good thing. Sometimes it is. But if there's a pressing geopolitical problem, it's not a good look for Obama to seem as unperturbed as he is on a Hawaiian holiday.
This is a lesson that Obama should have learned from his predecessor.
For all the substantive issues with George W. Bush's administration, there were also some major public relations miscues that caused Bush tremendous problems too. Among the largest was the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. President Bush later admitted it was a "huge mistake" not to go to Louisiana. "I should have touched down in Baton Rouge, met with the governor, and walked out and said, 'I hear you. We understand. And we're going to help the state and help the local governments with as much resources as needed,'" Bush told Matt Lauer in 2010.
There were plenty of other optics problems before Katrina. There was President Bush's dazed reaction after learning about the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and his baffling decision to continue reading My Pet Goat to schoolchildren. There was the scene shown over and over as part of the Fahrenheit 9/11 trailer, where Bush said: "I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you." Then, holding up a golf club, Bush added: "Now, watch this drive."
Optics matter. Affect matters. When crises rage, when people suffer, you have to look like you understand the urgency and import.
This is a lesson Obama has failed to learn.
As Michael Shear reported in Sunday's New York Times, "As smoke billowed from the downed Malaysian jetliner in the fields of eastern Ukraine on Thursday, President Obama pressed ahead with his schedule: a cheeseburger with fries at the Charcoal Pit in Delaware, a speech about infrastructure, and two splashy fundraisers in New York City."
The potential for jarring split-screen imagery was clear. Reports of charred bodies and a ground-to-air missile attack from Eastern Europe dominated television screens while photographers snapped pictures of a grinning Mr. Obama holding a toddler at the restaurant. The presidential motorcade was later filmed pulling up to Trump Place Apartments, the Riverside Boulevard venue for his first fundraiser. [The New York Times]
And how did the White House respond?
"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," said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director. "Abrupt changes to his schedule can have the unintended consequence of unduly alarming the American people or creating a false sense of crisis." [The New York Times]
The problem, of course, is that acting like you give a damn shouldn't be inflated or phony or schmaltzy. It's actually part of the job. Saying the right things at the right times matters. Showing up matters, too.
Bush should have gone to Louisiana, just like Obama should have gone to the Texas border — where a real-life humanitarian crisis involving Central American children is taking place. Instead, Obama went to Texas but skipped the border — dining on barbecue and raising money for Democrats.
Chris Matthews put it well a few years ago when he said of Mayor Giuliani,
Now, Rudy's the ultimate street politician. He was there on the curb when 9/11 struck. He had soot on his face. He seems like he doesn't have a ranch or a place to go to. He's always there, right in your face, dealing with reality. I think that's what — with all his aggravations and personality stuff and roughness — I think that's what people are looking for: Somebody who's clear and present and right there answering our questions, not rolling disclosure, telling us what a committee's gonna tell us.
Obama and his team were long lauded by the media and politicos alike for their "no drama, Obama" insouciance. The shtick is brilliant. By acting as if nothing is ever a big deal, they signal to the media and the public that there is nothing to see here.
That works until it doesn't. There's plenty to see here. And instead of looking above the fray, Obama now looks like he's just apathetically unaware that there even is a fray.