At about the moment the Tomahawk missiles began to rain down on Libya, Obama was joking with Brazilians about Carnival, the World Cup and the Olympics. Rather than hearing an Oval Office address announcing the new war, Americans got word from the president in a scratchy audio recording. As thousand-pound warheads pounded Libyan forces, Obama was kicking a soccer ball, seeing the sights and watching cowboys in sequins.
It was perilously close to George W. Bush’s My-Pet-Goat moment, when then-President Bush continued reading a storybook with children on Sept. 11, 2001, after he was told that the second World Trade Center tower had been hit. Bush later said he was trying to maintain calm; likewise, White House officials tell me the decision to proceed with the South America trip was made in part to convey that the Libya bombardment was not a major military action.
Obama administration officials calculated that he would take a hit for proceeding with the voyage. But they appear to have been surprised by the force of the weakling complaint, coming not just from usual suspects such as Karl Rove but from liberals such as my Post colleague Richard Cohen, who saw Obama “quite literally distancing himself from the consequences of his own policy.”
My own sense, based on years of Obamology and confirmed by discussions with current and former Obama advisers, is that Obama’s decision to proceed with Spring Break in Rio comes less from weakness than from stubbornness. Since his earliest days on the campaign trail in Iowa, he has made clear his aversion to the flavor-of-the-day news cycle, instead measuring his progress toward a few broad-brush goals, such as American competitiveness and America’s standing in the world. If something — like, say, the uprisings in the Middle East — doesn’t fit unambiguously within his big goals, his instinct is to brush it off.
“I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle,” he told reporters once. “I’m not. Okay?”
This worked to his benefit during the campaign, when he kept his focus on electoral mechanics rather than the vagaries of his opponents’ attacks. But as president, his broad brushes have not always served him well, as when his laser focus on health care left voters with the sense that he didn’t care about unemployment; he lost the House, and with it the rest of his agenda.
The attack on Libya presented the toughest test yet of Obama’s defiance of the news cycle. In a USA Today op-ed before his departure, Obama wrote that while the Middle East is important, he was going to Latin America because “our top priority has to be creating and sustaining new jobs and new opportunities.” Not only did the president proceed with his tour, but Vice President Biden went ahead with a reception for Democratic donors.
The administration officials I spoke with argued that this, itself, was a sign of strong leadership. “To abandon course at every moment of pundit criticism is not strength,” said one of the president’s top advisers. They pointed to polls showing most Americans continue to regard Obama as a strong leader, and they argued that, beyond Washington, headlines from Obama’s trip justified his strategy. (“Obama’s trip to Brazil key to N.J. businesses,” reported the Bergen Record.)
But the White House is also discovering the perils of broad-brush leadership. The latest Post/ABC News poll found that when Americans were asked who is taking “a stronger leadership role,” Republicans had a seven-point advantage over Obama; three months ago, Obama had a narrow lead.
The White House justifiably complains that the criticism of Obama’s Libya policy is inconsistent: First he was too slow to take action, and now he’s rushing to attack without congressional approval — even though Congress is on its own 10-day spring break.
But it doesn’t matter if the criticism is fair. Obama left a vacuum, and his opponents filled it. For a president suddenly called “weak,” such is the tyranny of the news cycle.
. Twitter: @milbank