When Emperor Claudius crossed the English Channel to take command of his legions in Britannia, he brought a massive host that included war elephants. It was a cynical spectacle of command, useful to burnish the image of the empire’s leader but mostly useless to the substance of the military struggle: Britannia’s fate was decided by generals and combat mostly unconnected to the emperor’s movement.

President Obama’s critics would have him put on a similarly useless show on the southern border.

President Obama boards a flight -- not to the U.S.-Mexico border.
President Obama boards a flight — not heading to the U.S.-Mexico border. (Associated Press)

Of the many inane political debates, the one concerning Obama’s decision not to visit the U.S.-Mexican border is among the most trivial, the result of a faulty U.S. political culture that vastly over-prioritizes show over substance.

On Sunday morning show after Sunday morning show, politicians and pundits wrung their hands over Obama’s whereabouts until they had squeezed out every last drop of trumped-up concern. The issue: The president failed to stop by Texas’s southern border when he flew through the state last week. Then he drank beer and shot pool in Colorado, while U.S. officials continued to deal with the thousands of children streaming into the country from Central America. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) attacked Obama for failing to “show up.” Bad optics.

But optics aren’t the solution to the humanitarian emergency at the border. They aren’t even part of the solution. The president can use his prominence to elevate issues the press and the public wouldn’t otherwise consider. Yet the current state of the border does not lack for attention. The president also needs to get out of the Oval Office bubble sometimes. Yet the most oppressive sort of seclusion presidents encounter is intellectual, not physical. As Obama keeps reminding us, he has a phone.

Anyone who has been stuck waiting for a passing motorcade knows, presidential travel is an unwelcome ordeal. Many Southern California liberals in car-bound Los Angeles loath presidential visits, because they snarl traffic. And that’s in a (more or less) functioning city, not at some understaffed border post. When considering a trip, presidents must balance the extent to which their travel complicates the work of those dealing with crises more than it helps them. It’s perverse for critics to demand otherwise to satisfy some ancient requirement for leaders to ride at the head of their legions.

The same could and should have been said of President George W. Bush, who did not put his boots to the ground in New Orleans following Hurrican Katrina. That was a poor measure of his concern, if it was a measure at all. Presidents aren’t the only ones who must endure this type of shallow criticism. Recall the public humiliation Washington put Eric Shinseki through in his final days as Veterans Affairs secretary – for failing to put on a show about how outraged he was over VA hospital wait times. This was not a substantive critique of his leadership of the Veterans Administration. It wasn’t a critique of anything meaningful at all.

There is a fine case that Obama needs to show more leadership. But his most significant failings have to do with hard policy and his difficulty cultivating serious initiatives. True, Republicans continue to scorch whatever earth he has to work with. But he hasn’t even articulated support for the right policies across a range of issues he professes to care about. After years of war, he does not have a satisfactory, coherent approach to Syria. He has been paying more attention to global warming in his second term, but he has publicly opposed the anti-carbon policies that would be the most effective — carbon taxes — probably for political reasons. And, in the face of a pressing transportation funding jam, he has ducked the obvious answer: raising the gasoline tax. He almost certainly knows better.

On immigration, his record has been better, favoring the sort of comprehensive reform that everyone outside the diehard GOP base admits to be necessary. There are still reasons to criticize him. But failing to bring his war elephants to the Rio Grande is not among them.

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.