President Obama begins his address at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood before a rainstorm canceled the event.
What a crummy weekend in Chicago President Obama suffered. At my dinner with friends on Sunday night, one of the younger guests—who had worked for Obama, as had his parents—used the word “optics”, arguing that Obama’s messaging these days is a mess. If the President had a competent message shaper, this young man said, surrogates would not be rushing among the talk shows braying about being on top of the BP oil spill from “day one,” while the public averts its eyes from images of dead sea birds.
That word “optics” (Bill Safire addressed the trendy word in his last column before his death in 2009) came to mind the next afternoon, on Memorial Day, as I watched on TV as torrential rain and harshly crackling thunder and lightning ruined the President’s speech at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, 50 miles southwest of Chicago in Will County. The strongest images were those of the lonely-looking leader at the podium (photo above), clutching a black umbrella, followed by those of Obama exiting the stage, umbrella still in hand, his body language shouting desolation and defeat.
Were his teleprompters getting wet? I wondered. Before long, the Obama-haters were thinking the same thing. “God Hates Teleprompters: Weather KO’s Obama’s Memorial Day Remarks in Illinois,” read the headline on one conservative blog. Others even said Obama deserved the horrific storm because he skipped the traditional presidential visit to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Never mind that several presidents have skipped the event in the past, and that the Elwood cemetery is the burial place of 17 soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When news accounts reported that Obama returned to his Kenwood home to pick up his family for the flight back to Washington, I wondered why he didn’t bring them with him to the cemetery to share the afternoon with families who had lost so much. The President might say that, unlike other politicians, he avoids using his family as props. But that would be untrue: they’ve been with him on the campaign trail and on the celebratory occasions. It would have been a nice “optic” to take them along on an occasion both solemn and—in its own way—celebratory.
Instead, we saw Obama standing outside at a podium, his nice suit getting wet, warning the 7,000 guests to go back to their cars to wait it out—oblivious to the fact that their cars were a mile away and they were stuck trudging through the mud and electric storm to get to the shuttle buses.
Until early 2009 Obama seemed to catch every lucky break. How much younger and jauntier he looked on Memorial Day 2005, speaking at that same cemetery in Elwood under blue skies. Then he was a newly minted U.S. Senator whose election owed so much to luck—sexual scandals toppled both his primary and general election opponents. Now he seems to be catching mostly misery: On the same morning as his canceled speech, the Israeli military raided a ship bound for Gaza, killing nine. Then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled his trip to the White House—an invitation extended personally by Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel during his visit to Israel to celebrate his son’s Bar Mitzvah.
In a few years, when Obama returns to an activity at which he is indisputably gifted—campaigning for himself—the optics will no doubt improve.
Unfortunately, as my friend said the other night, the President can’t wait that long.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune