Carter’s post regarding the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng highlights the downside to incumbency. The upsides are well-known — Air Force One, the White House, the ease of convening important meetings and saying important things. The downside is that you often have to accept responsibility for curveballs that you weren’t expecting.  And the timing is never good.

America’s relationship with China is important, but absent something extreme, it won’t drive many votes in November. However, it can be a distraction from the important business of campaigning for reelection. A week ago, relatively few people had ever heard of Chen. Now, he is moving from the peripheral and onto center stage. Again, all this is happening just as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arrive in China for important meetings. 

Carter points out the specific possible controversies, but what the administration most needs to avoid are binary scenarios where Obama is viewed to have “succeeded” only if Chen and his family are free and happy and will say so. Anything less could be viewed negatively. 

The Chinese aren’t eager to do Obama any favors, and they won’t let themselves be embarrassed by a single dissident who has worked himself into the spotlight. Unless this matter resolves quickly, Obama will find himself in a lose-lose situation. It’s a good reminder that a lot of what shapes the topical dynamics of a campaign are the unknown unknowns that surprise presidents more often than they would like.