Obama has conditioned us to think theatrical photo ops are meaningful. He can’t expect us to think differently when it suits him.


Our famously camera-shy president.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The consensus has formed: President Obama should have visited the border to take a firsthand look at the influx of Central American migrants. Democratic Reps. Luis Gutierrez, Beto O’Rourke, and Henry Cuellar said so over the past week. Democratic political celebrity Wendy Davis, who is running to be governor of Texas, said so, too. Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt includes the blunder in his list of sins that calls for a reshuffling of the top staffers in his administration.

President Obama is already criticized for being too slow to act, aloof, and out of sync with the public. He inhabits a political office, but sniffs at the theatrical requirements required. “This isn’t theater,” he said. “This is a problem. I’m not interested in photo ops, I’m interested in solving a problem.” This episode seems like just another confirming piece of data in a long-term trend. But that’s not right. President Obama will happily engage in a photo op. Here he is at the Key Bridge. Here he sends an unsubtle message to the Russians from a meeting with the Polish president. Here he shoots pool. Yum, barbecue! Tuesday he sat in a simulator car. He pushes his staff to seek out photo ops across the country and he’s asked his Cabinet to travel this summer to engage in their own. The issue is not his unwillingness to engage in this particular form of presidential art. He’s making a choice: when a photo-op isn’t to his advantage, he elevates avoiding it to a high-minded ideal.

The problem for the president, like all presidents, is that he thinks he has a say in the argument over whether a photo op is meaningful or not. He doesn’t. Part of the fix he’s in is of his own making. The blunt formula that equates presidential authority with a presidential visit to the scene of a crisis is one that he exploits when it suits him. So in this case, when the president makes the sensible case that his authority should be deployed to other facets of the problem than the border itself, it’s no surprise people don’t listen. 

The bully pulpit is undergoing a radical transformation. Technological changes have made it harder for a president to capture the public conversation. The high level of partisanship—in politics and the media—means that even if a presidential message does get through, it’ll have a pretty thick coating of spin and counterspin before people have a chance to swallow it. 

President Obama understands this much, and he has tried to refashion the lines of communication. That’s what the president’s visits to The View and late-night TV shows are about. That’s why the Baltimore Ravens were enlisted to help sell health care reform. 

In this world, a picture of the president has enormous power. It can be tweeted and Instagrammed to send a message better than any speech he might deliver. As a second-term president, Obama is more reliant on the photo op than ever because it’s harder for him to get noticed and covered. So the president traveled to Denver last week to meet with people who had written him letters, to send the message that he is focused on the middle class. It was a purely symbolic gesture, an act of total and complete theater.

So no wonder people hear there is a crisis at the border and want to see him there. He’s conditioned them to think that when something is serious, he pays it a visit. If you release pictures of the president in the Situation Room showing he’s on the case in one instance (when maybe you’re trying to milk the drama of the moment), then people are going to expect a Situation Room photograph from the night of the Benghazi attack or from the first night of unrest in Ukraine. A president can’t suddenly get virginal about the theatricality of photo ops when it doesn’t suit him. It rightfully makes us suspicious of him when he does. 

But does it make any policy sense to go to the border? There can be good policy reasons for a showy presidential visit. It quickens action. No one leans on his shovel when the president calls. Also, it can send a message of fellow-feeling to those who are suffering, as it did with all of the post-hurricane visits President George W. Bush made, and with the one he didn’t make immediately after Katrina.

There’s also a case that a president learns something from an emergency visit, but it’s not a strong case. A president must be able to act without seeing something firsthand, particularly when moving a president outside of the White House compound is such a production. It’s a crucial job skill, so it’s silly to think he’s not acting if he’s working from home.

Perhaps a visit to the home countries these children are leaving would have been interesting. It seems to have been effective for a Republican congressional delegation that just returned from there. But none of the lawmakers who have visited the border has returned with any potent revelations. They have mostly used the trip as a stage to assert their pre-existing views. Sen. Obama was certainly familiar with this stunt. He did it with a visit to Iraq during his first presidential campaign. It’s an effective communications tool, but it’s not an information-gathering tool. 

In this case, President Obama probably wants to avoid the type of feel-good message that photo ops are intended to convey. Indeed, that kind of message would likely backfire. “You have the president surrounded by little 7-year-olds, and it’s an emotional picture,” says Diana Negroponte, a public policy scholar and Latin America expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “It says to Mama and Papa, ‘We have this wonderful president. He will take care of them.’ ”

Instead, says Negroponte, the president should be sending the opposite message to the parents in their home country: The children will return. If that ultimately is the message the president does send by approving a faster deportation process, it’s easier for him to do so if he hasn’t had to look these young people in the eye in a big public photo op.

A veteran Democratic strategist explains that looking hard-hearted in that way has a clear political downside: It will upset a part of the president’s base and damage the Democratic Party’s advantage over Republicans on the question of which party is more empathetic toward Latinos in an election year when the deck is already stacked against the party. A visit to the border also has other political downsides White House aides were considering when they decided not to send Obama there last week when he was in Texas. It risks validating the separate Republican argument about the primacy of border security that has been a part of the larger immigration debate. The White House and Democrats argue that this current crisis is not a result of a porous border, but other factors, including violence in the countries these children are fleeing.

The fastest plausible way to send a message back to these home countries, say members of both parties, is if buses start returning with migrants who have not been allowed into the United States. That will happen faster if Congress amends the 2008 law that treats children from Central America differently than migrants from Mexico. Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas have introduced legislation shortening the length of detention hearings. It would send immigration judges to border cities with the hopes of quickening the process for determining whether minors had a legal claim to stay in the United States. 

Presidential visits are effective when they quicken action, but they also raise the expectation of action. A presidential visit to the border with no quick fix to announce runs the risk of increasing the impression the president is helpless in a crisis. If action from Congress, whether in the Cornyn-Cuellar legislation or of some other shape, is needed, then a more effective presidential photo op than a visit to the border would be a visit to Congress.

Another alternative photo op would be a picture of the president on the phone with the president of Mexico. “The president needs to call the Mexican president and say, ‘Neighbor, we need your help,’ ” says Negroponte. “ ‘The passage of this many children needs your help to stop it.’ ” Negroponte argues that the crisis—which includes the deaths of children who did not make it to the border—could not be happening without the complicity of Mexican authorities.

President Obama has suggested that he might have preferred a photo op of a White House signing ceremony for comprehensive immigration reform, which Republicans in the House have refused to address. Perhaps, but that’s too cute. The president knows that comprehensive immigration reform is not going to be born out of this crisis in time to address the crisis. If anything, Republicans who have been counseling a go-slow approach now have more momentum. The surge of cases at the border helps them make the case that well-intentioned laws have unintended consequences. The president is trying to deflect the political damage of the current crisis back on Republicans by reminding voters of their weakness. If he’s going to play that game, then Republicans might as well play the photo-op game.