If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s taking a genuine policy crisis and turning into an inane discussion about “optics,” which is what’s happening now with regard to the situation at the southern border. Both Republicans and the media have become obsessed with the question of whether President Obama should go to the border for a photo opportunity, with the accompanying and bizarre assertion that this is “Obama’s Katrina.”
In fact, it’s just the opposite. In that case, it was Bush’s failure of competence and his inability to go beyond photo ops that resulted in so much destruction. In this case, the president’s critics are actually demanding a photo op, while refusing to take any immediate practical steps to address the problem.
Here’s a front page story from today’s Post, which in the paper is headlined, “Obama defends itinerary in Texas.” NBC News asks: “Has Obama Already Failed On Immigration Crisis?” This, not because of what’s actually happening, but because of the “optics” of his failure to put optics first. Here’s the National Review’s Rich Lowry: “The first rule in a crisis for any executive is put on your windbreaker and your boots and get out on the ground. President George W. Bush didn’t do it soon enough after Hurricane Katrina and, politically, could never make up for it, no matter how many times he visited New Orleans subsequently.” Right, the president’s first job is to get in front of the cameras.
Rick Perry agreed: “I think about the criticism George W. Bush received when he didn’t go to New Orleans in Katrina. This is no different.” And in fairness, there are even a couple of Democrats getting into the act. Here’s a story from ABC: “Texas Democrat Says Obama Looks ‘Detached’ By Failing to Visit Border.”
One wonders exactly what all these people believe would happen if Obama went to the border. What sort of change would occur? Would he move closer to the Republican perspective on immigration policy? Are they under the impression that if the President had the opportunity to look into the face of a 9-year-old refugee from Honduras, he’d say, “By god, the Republicans are right. This here’s a terror baby! Get out of America, punk! USA! USA!”
Republicans actually seem to be under the impression that George W. Bush’s failure during Katrina was just one of impression management. He got photographed doing the wrong things, or gave an insufficient number of hugs to residents. But that wasn’t it at all. The problem was that his administration didn’t take the storm seriously enough, and when the horror became clear, the agency in charge of responding was led by the former Judges and Stewards Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association, who couldn’t successfully manage the cleanup of a messy rec room, much less a natural disaster on the scale of Katrina, which killed somewhere between 1,400 and 3,500 people and did upward of $100 billion in damage.
Back then, the administration’s critics were shouting at them to get their act together and do something, while George W. Bush was saying, “Brownie, you’re doin’ a heckuva job.” Right now the situation is reversed: the Obama administration has made a request for funds from Congress and is actually trying to address the problem at the border, while Republicans are refusing to do anything at all. Instead, they’re complaining about Obama’s failure to stage a photo op.
It isn’t that Republicans don’t have any policy arguments. Rather, it’s that they’re using the policy disagreements they have with the President over immigration as an excuse to put off any action. They still say they won’t pass reform because they don’t trust him to enforce the law, even as this crisis is exacerbated by the administration’s adherence to a 2008 law (pushed by evangelicals, passed with bipartisan support, and signed by President Bush) that mandates a deportation hearing for any minor arriving from countries other than Mexico. Meant to discourage human trafficking, the law makes it difficult to process all these children quickly, but even though both the White House and Republicans say they want to alter it, we still haven’t seen a bill from Republicans in Congress to do so. Or any bill to address this immediate issue, for that matter. It’s fair to criticize the administration’s proposals, but if you’re going to do that, you have to acknowledge that Republicans don’t seem willing to do anything at all in the short term.
If House Republicans don’t like the administration’s request for $3.7 billion in funds to handle the influx of child immigrants, they could pass their own bill allocating whatever amount they think would be preferable, aimed at whatever targets they think would be most effective, accompanied by any other policy changes they want to make. If they had a plan for action, but Obama was the one refusing to do anything, maybe then Republicans could reasonably argue that this is his Katrina. But at the moment, it looks more like theirs.