The “Obama Doesn’t Do Photo Ops” Meme and the Distractable Media

Yesterday, after I’d already filed a story on why the border crisis wasn’t moving any balls in Congress, President Obama gave a short Texas press conference about the situation. The AP asked the question that has captivated the press corps in this antediluvian swamp city: Why didn’t the president want to visit the border himself?

“Can you explain why you didn’t do that?” asked Julie Pace. “And do you see any legitimate reason for you to actually do that at some point, or do you think those calls are more about politics than anything else?”

Obama answered:

Jeh Johnson has now visited, at my direction, the border five times.  He’s going for a sixth this week.  He then comes back and reports to me extensively on everything that’s taking place.  So there’s nothing that is taking place down there that I am not intimately aware of and briefed on.

This isn’t theater. This is a problem. I’m not interested in photo-ops; I’m interested in solving a problem. And those who say I should visit the border, when you ask them what should we be doing, they’re giving us suggestions that are embodied in legislation that I’ve already sent to Congress. So it’s not as if they’re making suggestions that we’re not listening to. In fact, the suggestions of those who work at the border, who visited the border, are incorporated in legislation that we’re already prepared to sign the minute it hits my desk.

I saw that response on Twitter, but wanted to check the transcript, which took me to the White House website. To my amusement, the first thing I (or anyone) saw there was a dramatic photo of the president playing pool after meeting voters in Denver. A little while later, as the “photo ops” quote bounced around, I made a joke about how poorly he’d handled an open-ended question—how he’d taken the bait and dismissed the idea of a “photo op,” when he could have easily ignored that and skipped to his next sentence.

Here’s that joke, in a TPM compilation of pundits who got it wrong.

So, I bowdlerized what Obama said—but did not pretend to quote him—to make a point that it was silly to engage the “photo op” brouhaha at all. This is a bad habit of Obama’s, throwing chunks of red meat to progressives and allowing whatever he was trying to say be buried in a “president lashes out” story. At the moment, I didn’t think “doesn’t do photo ops” didn’t sound any different than “not interested in photo ops,” but of course that was part of a sentence that explained what he was interested in.

In other words, I do not align myself with the derpolanche reported by TPM.

CNN’s John King acknowledged Thursday that it’s “not like the President is averse to all photo-ops” — right before he misquoted what Obama said about photo-ops.

“So it is hard for the president, on the one hand, to say ‘I don’t do photo ops,’ when he’s doing a lot of photo ops,” King said.

The hosts on “Fox & Friends” were typically indignant about Obama’s apparent gaffe.

“The President — by definition, by stuff you have to do and you choose to do — you do photo-ops.”

And so on. The pundit world started lopping the quote in half as if the president literally declared that he does not do photo ops. This fails the acid test I use for determining the accuracy of a gaffe—it doesn’t have any internal logic at all. (I’m reminded of a story this week, in which a woman at a parade yelled “We’re farmers” at Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley and he said “so am I!” He explained that he thought, in the din, she said “We’re for farmers.” That simply made more sense than Braley, who is famously not a farmer, claiming to a voter that he totally is one.)

The quote-troversy also emphasizes the problem with turning every story into a test of presidential will and popularity. The president is the star of most D.C. political stories, obviously, so many stories end up being about whether they help or hurt him. The problem is that the press can’t be sure if they will, or won’t. The news cycle spins so fast that controversies become trivia within weeks. Remember the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner deal? Remember the VA scandal? One was a fascinating story about a troubled soldier and his angry, betrayed comrades. One was a vast public health story with a high body count. Neither is getting any political coverage now, but at the time the Story was what they meant for Obama.