Sticking to His Travel Plans, at Risk of Looking Bad
Obama Maintains Schedule Despite World Crises
By MICHAEL D. SHEARJULY 19, 2014 President Obama had lunch with Tanei Benjamin at a restaurant in Wilmington, Del., on Thursday. Mr. Obama also attended two fund-raisers on the day of crises in Ukraine and Gaza. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — 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 fund-raisers 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 Avenue venue for his first fund-raiser.
And yet, White House aides said no consideration was given to abandoning the president’s long-planned schedule, even during the hourlong flight from Delaware to New York, when word suddenly arrived that Israel had begun a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, providing the day’s second international challenge.
Instead, White House officials simply made sure to describe the president’s on-the-road management of the crises: calls to world leaders from Air Force One, telephone briefings from Secretary of State John Kerry and a secure-line meeting of his national security staff from a room in the Trump Place Apartments before his fund-raiser.
“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.”
For an administration in its sixth year, juggling presidential optics is nothing new. And with some rare exceptions, the public relations team around the president has remained consistently stubborn about refusing to let the never-ending stream of political, economic or international crises affect Mr. Obama’s daily schedule.
The current myriad incidents are no exceptions: Moments after making a grim statement about Ukraine on Friday, the president popped into the East Room, where the first lady, Michelle Obama, was holding a mock state dinner for children to promote her Let’s Move nutrition initiative. “My big thing,” he confessed to the kids, “chips and guacamole!” There was plenty of laughter all around.
On Friday afternoon, Mr. Obama flew to Camp David for the weekend. This week, he plans a three-day fund-raising swing in Seattle and California. White House officials said there were no plans to cancel the trip.
But the determination to stay the course is not without potential costs. Republicans seized on what some saw as the political dissonance on Thursday, accusing the president of failing to show Americans that he was in charge of the situation.
“Instead of responding to multiple international crises, the president apparently thought it was a better use of his time to attend a set of fund-raisers in New York,” Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and the incoming majority leader, said in a statement. “While the president is out on the loose and having a good time, he should remember that his responsibilities as commander in chief don’t stop when he’s out of the office.”
Administration officials shrug off that kind of organized Republican criticism. But social media users noticed, too. Twitter was filled with snarky mentions of the president’s activities on Thursday. One noted that Mr. Obama “interrupts busy fund-raising night to check in with team on two crises. Then back to business.” Another wrote: “Nice he could take a moment to check on those meddling world events.”
Veterans of previous administrations recalled that the political damage could be serious if the American people concluded that the president was politically tone deaf or insensitive, especially to the suffering of others during an emergency.
Scott McClellan, who served as George W. Bush’s press secretary during Hurricane Katrina, recalled that Mr. Bush, on a trip through Western states, was photographed strumming a guitar with a country music artist even as the storm began to bear down on New Orleans, flooding streets and stranding residents.
“When those moments are placed side by side with a crisis that’s worsening, it creates a perception problem that the White House can’t ignore,” Mr. McClellan said in an interview.
In his book “What Happened,” Mr. McClellan recalls with horror seeing the “image of a seemingly carefree President Bush pursuing his original schedule and disregarding the plight of Katrina’s victims — the dead, the homeless, the lost.”
Later, Mr. McClellan writes: “With 20/20 hindsight, it’s clear that President Bush should have canceled his two-day western trip and headed back to Washington on Saturday or Sunday, before Katrina unleashed its fury.”
In 1983, Ronald Reagan was vacationing at his ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., when the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Air Lines flight. Mr. Reagan initially declined to cut short his planned 25-day vacation to return to Washington. After three days of issuing written statements about the downing, and being caught on camera riding a horse, Mr. Reagan abruptly returned to the nation’s capital and later spoke to the nation.
Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who worked for Mr. Bush and helped run Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said Mr. Obama did not “look presidential” on Thursday during the crises.
“There is a total lack of symmetry from what the American people are seeing from the president and what is going on in the world,” Mr. Schmidt said.
He acknowledged that no president should be captive to events or hunkered down in the White House. And he said presidents, like other people, deserved downtime. But he said White House occupants had to abandon those moments when the situation demanded.
“Command presence in troubled times is very important,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Given the magnitude of events breaking out around the world, the optics of the president of the United States raising money every day for the election are not good.”