What I can’t tell yet about the “to hell with optics” kick that O’s on this week is whether it’s unique to him or whether he’s setting a precedent where “optics” will matter less to all future presidents, which wouldn’t be an altogether bad thing. What looks like damning tone-deafness to a political junkie often matters not at all to the average voter. How many people who approve of Obama’s job performance right now are going to switch to thumbs down because he took 90 seconds to charm Argentinians on the dance floor, Brussels or no Brussels?
Still, the point remains: Do optics matter less now than they used to? If President Ted Cruz decides to take in a ballgame with a foreign leader on the day of a major terror attack in Europe, then strolls out to the dance floor the next night while the papers are full of stories about a wave of blood-letting to come, would the media be more inclined to give him a pass now than it would in the past? Pre-Obama, there’s no way; it’d be “My Pet Goat” times 50 because that’s what the “Republicans are callous and out of touch” narrative requires. Post-Obama, I don’t know. Two years ago, Ferguson blew up, Russia and Ukraine started fighting, and ISIS beheaded James Foley all during a week when O was on vacation — and stayed on vacation. He’s always had contempt for the political class’s obsession with “optics.” If nothing else, President Cruz would remind the left of that at every opportunity if he was called out for similarly poor “optics.” Although I don’t think he would be. I think Cruz would have the basic good sense, in the event of an international crisis, to turn the public mirth-making down to a very low flame.
It seems paradoxical that a president might be able to get away with more bad optics rather than less in an age where media is ubiquitous, but I’m not sure that it is. The fact that the news cycle moves so amazingly fast helps keep stuff like this from lingering in the public consciousness — especially at a moment when Trump can fart out anything he likes on Twitter and command the next six to 12 hours of American media to cover it. Also, I wonder if the standard on “optics” is different for a serious politician like Cruz than it is for a celebrity like Trump. I think that’s part of the reason O gets away with stuff like this: He’s not just the president, he’s an icon to many of his supporters. No president since Kennedy got elected with more glamorous fanfare. An icon can be indulged for showmanship since his “job” is partly maintaining his image. Trump is much more in that mold than Cruz is. If he decided to tango, the storyline would be “Oh, that Donald — such a character.” If Cruz did it, it would either be “What a nerd!” or “This man isn’t taking his job seriously.” Glamour will buy you leeway in anything you do.