The Corner

Obama’s Aloofness

Yesterday when the Fort Hood news was breaking, at least a couple of the networks broke to President Obama’s remarks at the Tribal Nations Conference, expecting a statement from Obama on the shootings. What they saw for a few long, uncomfortable, minutes was Obama making routine political introductions and pandering to his audience. Here’s how Robert A. George puts it:

But instead of a somber chief executive offering reassuring words and expressions of sympathy and compassion, viewers saw a wildly disconnected and, inappropriately light president making introductory remarks. At the event, a Tribal Nations Conference hosted by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian affairs, the president thanked various staffers and offered a “shout-out” to “Dr. Joe Medicine Crow — that Congressional Medal of Honor winner.” Three minutes in, the president spoke about the shooting, in measured and appropriate terms. Who is advising him?

Anyone at home aware of the major news story of the previous hours had to have been stunned. An incident like this requires a scrapping of the early light banter. The president should apologize for the tone of his remarks, explain what has happened, express sympathy for those slain and appeal for calm and patience until all the facts are in. That’s the least that should occur.

Indeed, an argument could be made that Obama should have canceled the Indian event, out of respect for people having been murdered at an Army post a few hours before. That would have prevented any sort of jarring emotional switch at the event.

Did the president’s team not realize what sort of image they were presenting to the country at this moment? The disconnect between what Americans at home knew had been going on — and the initial words coming out of their president’s mouth was jolting, if not disturbing.

I don’t know. I’m about 3/5ths with Robert on this. I agree it was horribly disconnected from the drama of the moment and Obama didn’t help himself. Indeed, this is one of the areas — emoting and empathy — where the Obama White House’s vaunted communications operation has a real blindspot. Moreover, I think the White House’s blind spot reflects Obama’s own deficiencies. He really is a bit of a cold fish. His eulogy for Ted Kennedy, for example, showed that he lacks the ability — so common in politicians — to fake a certain kind of lachrymose sincerity plausibly. This shortcoming is not necessarily a bad thing in my book, but in Obama’s case it can become a liability, particularly in cases like this because it can feed other negative perceptions of the man.

Still, this incident seems like just one of the perils of the presidency in the media age. I can’t quite recall an example, but I’m sure that president Bush had similar moments when the cameras got to him in politician-mode during a national crisis.

Last year, when McCain halted his campaign to deal with the financial crisis, Obama said presidents need to be able to do a lot of things at once. He was right. I can give Obama a pass on this one, but I also think there might be a trend in the making.

Update: See above.