It can be difficult for the modern president to ignore the daily musings of political pundits or the fickle nature of public perception when making decisions, but if you were to ask President Obama about it, he'd likely say his decisions are his own. But take a look at the president's actions and you may come up with a different theory.
Just last month he told donors at a Las Vegas fundraiser for Senator Harry Reid, "[M]y job isn't to put my finger up to the wind and see which way the wind is blowing." Maybe not, but Mr. Obama's actions appear at times to reveal a different narrative.
A recent example relates to the simple matter of where to spend a little down time. A decision like that would undisputedly be a personal one, right? When you're under a world microscope, not necessarily. The first family recently chose Bar Harbor, Maine as their destination for a long weekend of relaxation. Why, some in the press wondered aloud, would the Obamas not live up to their own words when they implored the public to visit the struggling Gulf Coast?
After all, Mrs. Obama said this on July 12 in Panama City Beach, Florida, where she frolicked in the surf, "I know that there have been lots of questions lately about how we can best help people here on the Gulf Coast who've been affected by the oil spill. And to be honest, truly, one of the best ways that fellow Americans can help is to come on down here and spend some money."
The next day in the White House briefing room, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was pressed on that. A reporter asked, "Why not vacation down there if [the first family is] encouraging other people to do so?"Gibbs demurred, "I think the First Lady's message and the message of a lot of people [who have] been that the Gulf is -- having vacationed there myself, is a beautiful place and it's open for business."
So the Obamas went on their way and had a fun-filled weekend in Maine. They were back barely a few days when lo' and behold, the White House press shop announced the first family will get away from Washington for another weekend in mid-August. Guess where? Florida's Gulf Coast. The president is unlikely to claim he's reactionary, especially with something as seemingly benign as a vacation destination. However, a look back at the president's first year and half in office seems to reveal an interesting pattern.
Back in May of 2009, you will recall, the administration suffered public embarrassment after an unannounced photo-op of Air Force One flying over Manhattan frightened and unsuspecting public. Though the administration took a firm stand against the incident and initiated an investigation, the White House resisted repeated calls to release the photo which triggered the controversy in the first place. The pressure piled on and...voila! A photo was put out. Subsequently, many more photos of the same flight were released.
Then there was the more recent example of press access to President Obama. There's a complicated and sometimes semantical debate between members of the press and this White House about how many, or some say how few, press conferences this president has. A lot depends on how you define a press conference. For many in the press, the first part of this year was a dry season for press conferences, as defined by multiple Q and A sessions with the wider White House press corps. The media frustration seemed to reach a crescendo in late May when the White House stepped in and announced that after more than 300 days without such an exchange, Mr. Obama would hold a full-blown press conference.
Another achilles heel for the president was his presence in the Gulf region following the BP oil spill. Sure there was debate over when the government acted and whether the response was sufficient, and the president sought to tamp down those concerns. But as the crisis continued, the issue of appearance became a factor. The president had been to the Gulf Coast three times since the oil rig exploded in April to talk to residents and leaders and to see the spill's effects for himself, but he had only visited the state of Louisiana and he never stayed overnight. Then, a mid-June announcement: the president would make a two-day trip this time and he would stop in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida; spending the night in Pensacola.
Of course, no one can say for sure whether under any of these circumstances the president merely bowed to pressure. But the president is not ignorant of public perception. At that same Las Vegas fundraiser, he said of his policies, "As we were making these decisions, sometimes the pundits would say, boy, you know, why is he doing that, why is Harry Reid doing that? That's not going to be popular. Well, we've got polls. You know, Harry Reid and I, we've got pollsters. They let us know when things aren't going to be popular."