President Obama is not going to the U.S.-Mexico border. And not only that — he thinks the idea is stupid.
"This is not theater," Obama said late Wednesday. "I’m not interested in photo-ops."
The response was strong because the calls for him to visit the border have been strong. Border-representing Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) said earlier Wednesday that Obama looked "aloof" by coming within a few hundred miles of the border without actually going there.
Cuellar and some Republicans — notably Texas Gov. Rick Perry, with whom Obama met Wednesday — are pushing comparisons to Hurricane Katrina, during which President George W. Bush failed to show up early enough and was forever haunted by a photo of him surveying the carnage from the safety of an Air Force One flyover.
The Katrina comparisons are overdone, especially given the death toll involved in the hurricane and the systemic failures of federal emergency response. But it also showed that political "photo-ops" — although we might think they're stupid — are important.
For a few reasons:
1) Calling attention to something
Like nothing else, a president showing up at the site of a humanitarian crisis makes the nation focus on it. Lots of people (the media included) have been pretty slow to recognize what has happened at the border, and Congress is debating whether to grant Obama's $3.7 billion funding request to deal with the crisis.
An Obama visit to the border would certainly cast a spotlight and perhaps help force Congress to grant his request — and maybe even create a little more sense of urgency when it comes to passing immigration reform.
2) Talking to real people is important
Obama seemed dismissive Wednesday night of the idea that being on the ground and seeing the situation firsthand would give him any additional insights. "Nothing has taken place down there that I'm not intimately aware of," he said.
But just hours earlier, Obama was talking up the importance of hearing directly from average people who were struggling. In fact, he visited Denver expressly to visit people who had written him letters — something he said in a speech Wednesday morning was as important to his job as his daily national security briefing.
We at The Fix are very data-driven, and we prefer numbers to anecdotes. But we also recognize that being on the ground lends perspective that you can't get through other means — no matter how good your staff or your information is.
Obama might not think that visiting the border is a good use of his time, but it's hard to see how it's not without some informational value.
3) Skipping a photo-op is a political gamble
There is very little downside to Obama showing up at the border. But, as Bush showed, there is plenty of downside to not doing so.
Cuellar got at this a little on Wednesday, pointing to photos that emerged Tuesday of Obama playing pool and drinking a beer with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D). The juxtaposition between that and what's happening on the border is far from ideal for the White House.
That doesn't mean it's equivalent to Bush's Katrina flyover — the reason that photo became so infamous was because of the accompanying failures — but optics matter.
And so do "photo-ops."