Is the White House Lying or Just Bad at Crisis Communications?

Ordering a cheeseburger with fries while a downed airline smolders may not have been a great decision.

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Ron Fournier
July 21, 2014, 5:11 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s de­cision to stick with his sched­ule of fun­draisers and photo op­por­tun­it­ies amid twin for­eign policy crises eli­cited one of the strangest state­ments you’ll ever see from a White House.

“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.”

Where do I start?

First, the phrase “just for show” is in­dic­at­ive of the Obama White House con­ceit that their guy is above polit­ics. The fact is, all pres­id­ents do things just for show, be­cause the of­fice is in­her­ently polit­ic­al, and one of the levers of power can be found in the pub­lic theat­er. Think of Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln’s split rails, Wil­li­am McKin­ley’s front porch, Theodore Roosevelt’s whistle-stops, Frank­lin Roosevelt’s fireside chats — oh, and Barack Obama’s en­tire 2008 cam­paign, not to men­tion his “bear-on-the-loose” jaunts with or­din­ary Amer­ic­ans.

The hy­po­crisy is stag­ger­ing. How is play­ing pool and drink­ing beer with the gov­ernor of Col­or­ado not “just for show”? Obama and his team con­sist­ently re­spond to cri­ti­cism by dis­miss­ing the me­dia’s fo­cus on “op­tics,” even as they craft and con­trol the pres­id­ent’s im­age more ag­gress­ively than per­haps any pre­vi­ous White House.

Second, while Palmieri is cor­rect that gut­ting a pres­id­en­tial sched­ule is rarely a good idea, there are times when it is. You could make an ar­gu­ment that Thursday was one such time, when the Ga­za Strip erup­ted with vi­ol­ence and Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin’s al­lies shot a pas­sen­ger plane from the sky. A pres­id­ent can bring calm and clar­ity to a con­fus­ing situ­ation, or he can add to pub­lic anxi­ety.

About the time a Rus­si­an news agency re­por­ted 23 Amer­ic­ans were aboard the downed liner — a re­port that was re­spons­ibly at­trib­uted and dis­trib­uted by U.S. news agen­cies — Obama was or­der­ing lunch with a single moth­er at the Char­coal Pit in Delaware.

That tweet was based on my know­ledge of how a White House works in crisis. It hap­pens: Har­row­ing news pierces the se­cur­ity bubble, and a pres­id­en­tial aide tells the pres­id­ent, “I think we should go, sir.” Let’s fig­ure out what’s hap­pen­ing, and make sure we’re not the part of an em­bar­rass­ing split screen on cable TV.

The Rus­si­an re­port was wrong, which isn’t a sur­prise, and which doesn’t sub­stan­tially al­ter the ur­gency of the mo­ment: Let’s go, sir. Later on Thursday, I con­firmed with a White House of­fi­cial that there was a dis­cus­sion among pres­id­en­tial aides in Delaware about the poor tim­ing of the res­taur­ant stop.

The third prob­lem with Palmieri’s quote is the most ob­vi­ous — “un­duly alarm­ing the Amer­ic­an people or cre­at­ing a false sense of crisis.”

Un­duly alarm­ing? False sense of crisis? A ground war in the Middle East and rain­ing bod­ies over Ukraine are cause for alarm. These were no false crises — no more than the string of second-term con­tro­ver­sies that have un­der­mined Obama’s cred­ib­il­ity are “false scan­dals.”

This points to the fun­da­ment­al prob­lem with Obama’s com­mu­nic­a­tions eth­os: He and his ad­visers are so cer­tain about their mor­al and polit­ic­al stand­ing that they be­lieve it’s enough to make a de­clar­a­tion. If we say it, the pub­lic should be­lieve it.

That’s not how it works. A pres­id­ent must earn the pub­lic’s trust. He must teach and per­suade; speak clearly, and fol­low word with ac­tion; show em­pathy to­ward his rivals, and ac­know­ledge the mer­its of a cri­tique. A suc­cess­ful pres­id­ent pays care­ful at­ten­tion to how his im­age is pro­jec­ted both to U.S. voters and to the people of the world. He knows that to be strong, a lead­er must look strong. Im­age mat­ters, es­pe­cially in an era so dom­in­ated by them.

In the story that quoted Palmieri, New York Times journ­al­ist Mi­chael D. Shear re­por­ted that White House aides “gave no con­sid­er­a­tion to abandon­ing the pres­id­ent’s long-planned sched­ule” on Thursday. No con­sid­er­a­tion, really? Is this White House so stub­born and out of touch that pres­id­en­tial ad­visers didn’t even con­sider tweak­ing his sched­ule? Un­less the White House lied to Shear, the an­swer is yes.

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