Two important things happened today in the political world of President Obama.
The first was that the Advocate, a Louisiana newspaper chain, published an editorial calling on the president to come to the state to see the horrible flooding first-hand. It read, in part:
We’ve seen this story before in Louisiana, and we don’t deserve a sequel. In 2005, a fly-over by a vacationing President George W. Bush became a symbol of official neglect for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The current president was among those making political hay out of Bush’s aloofness.
Sometimes, presidential visits can get in the way of emergency response, doing more harm than good. But we don’t see that as a factor now that flood waters are subsiding, even if at an agonizing pace. It’s past time for the president to pay a personal visit, showing his solidarity with suffering Americans.
Tough stuff, right?
The second thing that happened was this tweet.
Obama playing golf at Martha's Vineyard with Larry David today
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) August 18, 2016
The I-can't-believe-he-is-on-vacation-while-terrible-news-event-happens narrative is neither new nor unique to Obama. George W. Bush was regularly pilloried by his political opponents for extended vacations at his ranch in Crawford, Tex. (Bush once took a five-week break during the summer of 2005.)
And, as has been documented ad nauseam, there's really no such thing as a vacation for a president of the United States.“Presidents don’t get vacations — they just get a change of scenery,” Nancy Reagan famously told critics of her husband's regular trips to the family's ranch. Work, especially in this digital age, follows you around.
Still, it's worth noting this moment. And that's because it speaks to Obama's unique and long-lasting commitment to not playing by a core rule of modern politics: making at least some decisions based on "how it looks" and/or "how it will play."
Obama has long been a rejectionist on this front. His stubborn refusal to rebut claims regarding what was in the Affordable Care Act badly hamstrung his party's attempt to win the fight for public perception on the law. His unwillingness to say the words "radical Islamic terror" have become a hobbyhorse for conservatives and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. And so on and so forth.
Obama just doesn't like to fake it. If he doesn't want to do something or thinks it's stupid to do it — regardless of whether it actually is stupid — he won't do it. This riff in response to Republican criticism of how Obama describes the threat posed by the Islamic State militant group, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL, captures his view on perception politics nicely:
For a while now, the main contribution of some of my friends on the other side of the aisle have made in the fight against ISIL is to criticize this administration and me for not using the phrase “radical Islam.” That’s the key, they tell us — we can’t beat ISIL unless we call them “radical Islamists.” What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to trying to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer is none of the above. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction...
...There has not been a moment in my seven and a half years as president where we have not been able to pursue a strategy because we didn’t use the label "radical Islam." Not once has an adviser of mine said, man, if we really use that phrase, we're going to turn this whole thing around. Not once. So if someone seriously thinks that we don’t know who we're fighting, if there's anyone out there who thinks we're confused about who our enemies are, that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we've taken off the battlefield.
He's genuinely angry — not an emotion you see all that much from any politician at that level but particularly the usually calm and professorial Obama. And he's angry because in Obama's mind the sort of performance-for-the-sake-of-performance that Republicans are demanding is everything that's wrong with politics.
(Nota bene: For all of you "ALL HE DOES IS PERFORM" readers, I know that is a view of Obama that many people hold. I am not blind to it. But this piece is about how Obama thinks of himself. Not how you or I think of him. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.)
That's why Obama won't break off his vacation in Martha's Vineyard — or stop playing golf on said vacation — to travel to Louisiana. Because he believes he can monitor the situation as well — or better — from where he is. And that the sole reason to go to Louisiana is for the theatrical piece of politics, a piece that he not only rejects but detests.