The presidential campaign bubble can be among the most choreographed of places — where even spontaneous “off the record” stops are planned in advance and reaction to the daily political debate is scripted for maximum effect.
That is why Friday was such a jolt for President Obama and his traveling campaign caravan. As the “pool reporter” assigned Friday to shadow the president — at his hotel, in his motorcade, on Air Force One — and send reports to the national White House press corps, I saw first-hand how an operation even as large and experienced as Obama’s struggled to comprehend, and react to, the fast-breaking news of the movie theater massacre.
On this day, in an election season full of daily competition, the Obama White House’s “rapid response” would mean more than simply fighting back against negative Web videos from the president’s opponent. It was a day when politics would give way to pathos, and a president often described as cold and aloof would try to deliver a response calibrated to be both empathetic and authentic.
When the big, unexpected story breaks — Columbine, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 — all eyes turn first to the crime scene, and then slowly but directly to the leader of the United States. When did the president learn of the grisly details, how did he react, what can he do about it — and how will he tell it to us?
That’s what everyone wants to know.
So the White House scrambled to tell us. Air Force One flew from Palm Beach, Fla., where Obama had spent the night during a two-day campaign trip to the Sunshine State, to Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast, where the president would make his public remarks about the shooting, and then back home to Washington.
“Important Note On Today,” read the subject line of the second e-mail, which arrived in my inbox at 8:52 a.m. while we were still at the Palm Beach Ritz-Carlton, where the president spent the night. This e-mail was from Jen Psaki, the Obama campaign’s traveling press secretary, who has begun joining Carney, the White House press secretary, on presidential trips to handle campaign-related news.
“The President will address the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado in shortened remarks in Ft Myers, Florida this morning,” Psaki wrote, the first sign that the day’s itinerary, which included rallies in Fort Myers and Orlando, would eventually be jettisoned.
Just a day earlier, a campaign aide had leaked to reporters that Obama would go on the attack Friday, using his Florida speeches to finally hit back at Republican rival Mitt Romney. The presumptive GOP nominee has lambasted the president for using the phrase “you didn’t build that” while talking about business entrepreneurs. Obama was arguing that government helps businesses, but Romney has questioned Obama’s commitment to free enterprise.