What mania could have compelled the president to take partisan swipes and accuse Republicans of being unpatriotic while police were in the middle of a manhunt after a mass shooting at a naval base just a few miles from the White House?
While Americans wondered if it was a terrorist attack or if there were multiple shooters still on the loose, their president touted again his re-election victory of last year, scoffing at his long-vanquished opponent’s effort to make the election a referendum on Obama’s 2010 health law.
The president certainly knew the shooting was taking place and that the manhunt was underway, referencing both in introductory remarks before going into his standard stump speech assailing Republicans in the ongoing budget battle, now in its third year. It had been more three hours since the news broke.
Critics have complained before about the president’s bad timing: Heading to Las Vegas for a fundraiser while the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya was still smoldering; hitting the golf course with ESPN hosts in the midst of the Syria crisis; etc.
But those complaints can at least be partly answered by the fact that the president is the president all of the time. Just as Democrats complained about George W. Bush’s frequent decampments to his Texas ranch, Republicans fume over Obama’s relentless fundraising and golf obsession. But history tells us that it is more about what a president does than where he does it.
Obama did not order a military intervention after the Libya attack. Would his critics have thought his inaction better if he would have been sitting in the Oval Office instead of aboard Air Force One? Unlikely. Would Obama’s backing off on Syria been more palatable if he had not been playing golf with Tony Kornheiser? Doubt it.
But when the president chooses to address the public, timing matters. So why was his timing so terrible on Monday? Why did Obama feel the need to attack while thousands of Washington residents and workers were under “shelter in place” orders? What was it about this particular version of the same attack speech Obama has been giving since 2011 that could not wait?
Nothing. And that’s the point.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney scoffed at the question, saying cancelling the speech wasn’t even considered and that what Obama did was “entirely appropriate” because “time is short.”
It’s hard to imagine that time is so short until the Oct. 1 government shutdown deadline that a day’s delay in the speech would have been so damaging, especially because it was so similar to dozens of other addresses the president has given. But in Obamaland, time is always short. In their relentless battle to own every news cycle and keep bulldozing the political press, every second counts.
The president has had an almost uniformly bad start to his second term. Scandals, the woe-begotten implementation of his health law, a chaotic unraveling of the once-vaunted “Arab Spring,” the ascendancy of rival nations on the world stage and the intractable partisan standoff in Congress have left Americans skeptical of Obama’s election-year plea to “hold on” just a bit longer to let his agenda work.
In survival mode and stripped of the political stars who helped the administration stay on offense for the first four years, Team Obama is looking bereft. The result of the White House summit of former political aides who helped the president settle on trying to hang the Syria debacle around the necks of Congressional Republicans suggest that David Axelrod & Co. themselves have lost their chops whilst lolling in MSNBC green rooms and Hoovering up corporate cash on K Street.
The old approach of living life on terms set by Politico and TV news means attacking, attacking, attacking and attacking. If you want to “win the day,” you’ve got to be in the day. While the approach long ago turned Obama into wallpaper, ignored through overexposure, it did provide lots of fresh video and soundbites to make sure that the Washington press corps always had something fresh (or at least freshly recycled) from the administration.
This manic inability to pause or to even seemingly take a breath has policy consequences. It’s hard to imagine that Obama’s zig-zagging on Syria is influenced by anything so much as an allergy to even a half news cycle of unflattering headlines from a previously doting press. Bad polls, bad press? Must mean it’s bad policy.
But now the approach is even losing the support of those to whom Obama is catering. Politico itself today noted that Obama found “tone a challenge.” The same folks who thrilled to every fresh round of partisan bear baiting and nodded approvingly at a president whose political strategy was to explode his rivals now notes that it was unclear “what benefit the White House hoped to reap in launching a major fall offensive in the middle of a national and local tragedy that consumed media attention all day.”
The intended benefit was to keep reporters tap, tap, tapping away at their keyboards around Obama’s story line. Obama staged an entire barnstorming tour this summer that seemed substantially aimed at scolding reporters for focusing too much on his scandals and not enough on his call for more government spending, and yet you wonder why he plowed ahead with his debt-limit speech.
He was doing it for you, Politico. And this is how you repay him?
Obama seems desperately afraid to allow any news cycle to proceed without being in it somewhere. Whether it was talking to “The Pimp With the Limp” and other local deejays in 2012 or doing a Web interview this year with Zillow, Obama is always there, trying to bulldoze his way through the news cycle.
This time, since the story was in the press corps’ backyard, it became all too much. A president whose relentlessness was once considered his cardinal virtue as a subject (and, by extension, a leader) suddenly became distasteful.
Obama will make up for this by being more effusive in the aftermath of the shooting, rightly realizing he has some amends to make. But on Monday, we got a window of the mania that grips this second-term White House: the fear of being ignored.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News. His Power Play column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays at FoxNews.com. Catch Chris live online weekdays at 11:30 am ET. Read his “Fox News First” newsletter published each weekday morning. Sign up here.