For Obama, every ‘photo op’ isn’t equal

The president doesn’t usually take such a hard line


President Obama isn’t always averse to using a river as a backdrop, as he demonstrated in Cincinnati in 2011. (Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

You may have heard that President Obama didn’t visit the Mexican border on his trip to Texas this week because he said a “photo op” would not solve the immigration crisis.

This is undoubtedly true. It wouldn’t. But would a photo op create jobs, fix bridges, clean up the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill, rebuild the Jersey shore after a hurricane, or stabilize the Korean Peninsula?

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop. View Archive

Whenever the president travels anywhere, whether he’s visiting the site of a tragedy, making a policy point or guzzling a beer while shooting pool, photos will be taken. That’s inevitable. So to call a stop at the border a photo op means, by definition, that every other time he’s visited somewhere was also a photo op.

We’re not talking here about jaunts to local eateries, sports games or events with celebrities. A lot of Obama’s visits to places deal with very serious issues.

For instance, in September 2011, with the economy still struggling to recover, Obama gave a speech in front of the aging Brent Spence Bridge on the Ohio River to make the case for creating jobs and rebuilding our infrastructure.

In April 2010, the president went down to Louisiana to survey the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In May 2012, Obama took a quick trip over to Afghanistan on the first anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden.

In October 2012, Obama visited New Jersey’s devastated coastline after Hurricane Sandy.

In June 2012, Obama went to Colorado to see the areas ravaged by wildfires.

In March 2012, Obama visited the tense border between North and South Korea.

From each spot, there are photos.

The controversy over Obama’s decision not to visit the border is, like most things, largely political. The president said Wednesday that he doesn’t think a trip there would add anything beyond the briefings he’s received from administration officials who have visited the border.

It could also be bad optics for the president to tour shelters full of children he has vowed to deport as he struggles to balance that stance with pressure from immigration advocates seeking more humane laws.

Still, when serious issues arise, the president could probably do worse than a photo op, formerly known as visiting.

Maple-leaf drag

Seems it’s been a bit of a rough patch of late for our man in Ottawa, Bruce Heyman, a mega-bundler who formerly was with Goldman Sachs in Chicago. It began last month when the ambassador gave his first big speech at a think-tank dinner.

The speech, judging from the audience applause, went over quite well. But then came a Q&A with Canada’s former ambassador to Washington, Frank McKenna, who said he wanted to ask about some “irritants”: the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact; a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario; and, of course, the Keystone XL pipeline taking oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

That part didn’t go well. Not at all. And it garnered Heyman a blistering attack in the Wall Street Journal and the Canadian press, calling his comments an “egregious insult” and offensive. An attendee told us he found the remarks “patronizing” and “condescending.” (It should be noted that the Canadians, while unquestionably the nicest people on the planet, are quick to take offense when they perceive being belittled by their neighbor.)

But Heyman had defenders in the Canadian press, with one columnist calling the attacks way over the top, “cheap and personal.”

The best exchange came on the pipeline, with McKenna asking why, after five years, the project hasn’t been approved.

One reason, Heyman explained, is “we have received 3 million comments” on the “very emotional” issue, Heyman explained, “just since the beginning of this year” and “not all of them are even in English, and they have to be translated. I don’t know if any of you have sat down but maybe tonight on your drive home you can think how long it would take to process each individual memo. We don’t have memo reading departments [MRDs] in the State Department who are reading this.”

(Wait a minute. Wasn’t there a huge MRD, used to be on the fifth floor right below Assistant Secretary John Bolton’s office?)

We tweeted Heyman to ask whether he wanted to reply to the Wall Street Journal column but got no response. We contacted the State Department on Wednesday, and it responded Thursday with a statement strongly supporting him.

“Ambassador Heyman is right to assert that the relationship between the United States and Canada remains strong and immensely beneficial to both countries,” the department said. “Any relationship this large and important will have occasional differences of opinion, which we resolve through dialogue. It’s important that Canadians and Americans . . . step back every so often to appreciate how together we have built the most successful political and economic relationship in the world.”

Indeed.

Secretary of six-string

John Kerry entertained Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong with an impromptu guitar performance in Beijing on Thursday. Our colleague Sarah Larimer asked two music experts to critique the secretary of state, and the reviews aren’t half bad.

Michael Molenda, editor in chief of Guitar Player magazine: “For the first piece in the clip, Secretary Kerry sounds very good — like a well-practiced amateur with a love of the guitar. His fingering is fluid and the notes sound full, robust, and accurate. But in the second piece, you can hear buzzes and muted notes that betray a certain lack of fingering technique. His flourish at the end, however, is awesome.”

Brad Tolinski, editor in chief of Guitar World magazine: “Charming amateur. . . . He plays like someone half-remembering something he was once good at 20 years ago. The first piece is very simple and goes well enough, but the second piece is bit out of his reach. Like any good politician, he knows when things are starting to go bad, and reacts quick enough to get out while he still can!”

— With Colby Itkowitz

Twitter: @KamenInTheLoop, @ColbyItkowitz

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