Obama, the Border, and Borderline Judgment

Obama, the Border, and Borderline Judgment

By Carl M. Cannon - July 13, 2014

President Obama is a political trailblazer, but some of the precedents he’s setting are highly dubious. At the top of my list would be his habit of relentlessly berating his political opponents at the same time he’s asking for their help.

Convinced that the huge recent influx of undocumented women and children from Central America requires an emergency federal response, Obama asked last week for nearly $4 billion in emergency funds from Congress. But even while making this supplemental request, Obama couldn’t resist relentlessly mocking the very House Republicans whose votes he needs.

“This should not be hard,” Obama explained dismissively. “Congress just needs to pass the supplemental.”

 It’s a novel way of asking people for money, and it produced predictable results.

“If we don't secure the border, nothing’s going to change,” replied House Speaker John Boehner. Added Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell: “What he appears to be asking for is a blank check, one that would allow him to sustain his current failed policy.”

So much for biting the hand that you want to feed you. Then there were those pesky critics who had the temerity to suggest that if the president could go to Texas to raise money for Democrats, surely he could visit the border region and see the immigration crisis first-hand. Obama had scornful words for them, too.

“This isn’t theater,” he said. “I’m not interested in photo ops. I’m interested in solving a problem.”

If we stipulate that the president is sincerely concerned with addressing the issue, we can also acknowledge that this is a man intensely interested in photo ops. It seems like an obsession, actually. For five years, White House image-makers put out hundreds of pictures of Obama engaged in non-problem-solving activities:

Obama sitting (alone) in a bus seat made famous by Rosa Parks, eating hot dogs with David Cameron, walking arm-in-arm with Bruce Springsteen, striking a Superman post in front of a statue of Superman, embracing Bowe Bergdahl’s parents, and affecting a pensive pose in Nelson Mandela’s old prison cell. Obama even snapped a selfie at Mandela’s funeral—and the White House released that, too.

His statement deriding photo ops was made the same day the official White House website featured a photograph of Obama shooting pool in a beer hall with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper—the very definition of a photo op.

The president’s defenders countered that all modern presidents do this kind of thing, and that Obama hadn’t said he was against all photo opportunities—just one on Texas’ border with Mexico. Both assertions are true enough, but the problem is that such feelings of forbearance on the part of liberals—including then-Sen. Obama—didn’t extend to the previous occupant of the Oval Office in a similar circumstance.

On Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall, George W. Bush was in Southern California. He’d traveled there from his Crawford, Tex., ranch near the end of a 30-day working vacation, stopping briefly in Arizona. These weren’t fundraisers, either. Bush was scheduled at senior citizens centers to draw attention to a recently -enacted prescription drug benefit. Then he was heading to San Diego to observe the 60th anniversary of VJ Day.

As he learned details of the storm’s extensive damage, Bush offered prayers and pledges of federal aid. “I want the folks there on the Gulf Coast to know that the federal government is prepared to help you when the storm passes,” he said. When more grim news about New Orleans reached them, White House officials cut short their trip and flew to Crawford a day early before heading to Washington.

On his way to the nation’s capital, Bush directed the Air Force One to fly low over the flooded areas. To his critics, this was a clueless act, and somehow callous.

“The president's 35-minute Air Force One flyover of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama was the perfect metaphor for his entire presidency: detached, disconnected, and disengaged,” wrote Arianna Huffington.

Hollywood activist Michael Moore was even nastier. “I know you didn't want to interrupt your vacation ... plus, you had fundraisers to go to and mothers of dead soldiers to ignore and smear,” he wrote.

Rapper Kanye West claimed that the government’s response to the disaster showed that Bush “doesn’t care about black people.”

In hindsight, little of this seems fair. What Bush saw as he flew over the battered region shocked him. The next day, he publicly pledged $10.5 billion in federal aid, enlisted his father and Bill Clinton to help in recovery efforts, and spoke about the tragedy from the Rose Garden. The next day, he headed down there, where he literally put his arms around shell-shocked survivors, many of them black people. Bush returned again in mid-September and made a nationally televised address from Jackson Square in New Orleans.

When he ran for president, then-Sen. Barack Obama seemed to forget all that. All he cared to recall was the flyover, which is more than he’s done on the Texas border this year.

“We can talk about what happened for two days in 2005, and we should,” Obama said on Feb. 7, 2008, while campaigning in Louisiana. “We can talk about levees that couldn’t hold, a FEMA that seemed not just incompetent but paralyzed and powerless, about a president who only saw the people from the window of an airplane instead of down here on the ground.”

Although Obama probably doesn’t have to go to the border personally to be an effective leader, he may owe George W. Bush an apology.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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