When the members of Barack Obama’s administration say that concerns for the president’s safety at the historic march in Paris on Sunday prevented him from traveling to France, and they say this often, they are really only guessing. More accurately, they should say that they believe security concerns would have prevented Obama from traveling to Paris if they had bothered to investigate the prospect of providing him with a security detail for that trip. According to the Secret Service, the agency was never even asked to consider the precautions necessary to get the President of the United States to France.
“The White House cited security concerns and the fact that the rally came together quickly, in about 36 hours. Earnest said presidential or vice presidential security for events such as the march are ‘onerous’ and have a ‘significant impact’ on those who attend,” The Washington Post reported. “A Secret Service official said the agency was not asked or notified about a potential trip to Paris.”
“Officials acknowledge that the Secret Service could have pulled it off,” reported CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta on Monday. “The agency was not asked or notified about a trip. It would have been a challenge, but he did not say it was impossible.”
It increasingly seems as though the backlash against the president’s decision to skip the march is taking on a life of its own. Presidents often miss events, and many of them are historic in nature. So why is this one capturing the imaginations of the public and the press so completely? They say that the most damaging stumble for a politician is that which accentuates an already widely acknowledged character flaw. It could be that Obama’s aloof, professorial nature has been emphasized to the point of near caricature by his decision to pass on an appearance in France.
The dissembling nature of the White House’s excuses for Obama’s absence, culminating in an admission of fault and shortsightedness, is equally unique. White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest’s admission that the White House failed to meet the demands of posterity by not sending a higher ranking official to the march has led even the media to note that this administration is rarely so contrite.
“No White House likes to admit being wrong,” Politico reported on Monday. “This White House especially has a tendency to respond to political and media criticism by digging in.”
There’s an impatience with optics — the ceremony and staging of the presidency — that flows right from the president, and any staffer hoping to do well in the West Wing dismisses concerns about appearances raised by reporters, Republicans or uncooperative Democrats.
Indeed, when Earnest was asked to respond on Monday to the many criticisms of the president’s absence, his first instinct was to reply, “Criticism from who?”
Of course, to answer Earnest’s question would have taken an hour. It is a criticism coming from the left and the right, the commentary class and the nonpartisan press, the apolitical American and the plugged in pundit alike. Earnest quickly abandoned this reflexively defensive tick, but it was instructive. It suggested, as Politico noted, that the press secretary’s first instinct was to question the character or the associations of the president’s critic rather than to answer the criticism.
This has been an interesting moment for the Obama presidency. The White House clearly made a mistake by not attending the rally, but, unlike so many other failures of this administration, the press and the public seems less inclined to forgive this infraction so quickly.