Last week President Obama traveled to Cuba, and later to Argentina. Right as he was beginning his trip we saw ISIS strike again, with a deadly attack in Brussels, killings dozens, including Americans. Some in the press were worried the terror attack would “overshadow” Obama’s diplomatic efforts – in the end, they had nothing to worry about. Obama kept to his schedule, attending a baseball game with Cuba’s dictator leader Raul Castro (and participating in the wave), and later dancing the tango in Argentina.
Obama was criticized by some for this seemingly tonedeaf response to a terror attack – criticism that was later counter-criticized by others as simply an “optics” issue. “Optics” is an Acela corridor-cable news creation that forms a catch-all for those who like to dismiss criticism as nothing more than surface critiques: ‘They just care how it looks, not how it really is.’ But optics actually represent a feeling every human goes through on a regular basis, and dismissing the way an image makes Americans feel is to turn up one’s nose and ignore reality.
Two longtime Obama administration senior employees, Dan Pfeiffer and Jon Favreau, recently launched a very good podcast on Bill Simmons’ Channel 33 The Ringer podcast network. In it, they discussed the recent Cuba (and Argentina) trip, and the reaction of some – Morning Joe and Politico in particular were objects of their disdain – who were critical of the post-terror attack optics. “Washington talking heads, pundits, political people ultimately default to the optics debate, because the other issues are too complicated,” said Pfeiffer. “It’s easier to criticize the president for going to a baseball game, doing the wave, tangoing in Argentina, then offering some different set of policies that would prevented what happened in Brussels.”
And Favreau: “If you spend your life in cable news green rooms and watching cable news, which has these images of terror all over the screen 24 hours a day, you’re going to want a response from the president that is ‘I’m dropping everything, I’m returning to the States, and I’m going to look sad and angry for four days.'”
There are several things fundamentally misguided with this thinking. First, the “optics debate” is never just about how something looks – optics is about how something can be interpreted. Optics do not exist in a vacuum. They are tells, signs that show how a person really feels.
Everyone, especially in the new social media era, deals with optics every day. Break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and suddenly you’re at a baseball game doing the wave in a picture on Facebook? Well it just looks bad. ‘I mean, he already has the tickets – but does he have to be enjoying it so much?’
Lost a close relative and then suddenly a picture is posted on Instagram of you dancing? Expect some criticism for the way it looks – the way it makes others feel. Or even on a smaller scale. Ever open a present from someone who is standing over you watching, only to see it’s, say, some juicer that you’ll never use? We’re forced to portray a feeling of gratitude, to mask the truth that we couldn’t care less about the thing. Bad optics is making some face that shows they got you the wrong gift.
President Obama is practical and professorial. He knows, rightfully, that coming home and looking “sad and angry for four days,” as Favreau so cavalierly stated, does nothing for the mission itself. He’s likely being briefed, there is nothing more he could do. None of that changes the perception that he is having fun while many Americans are rightfully concerned about terror happening in cities that feel very much like our own.
Portraying yourself as someone who is concerned as well doesn’t require canceling the diplomatic trip. You can go to the game. But do you have to do the wave with Castro too? You can go to the Argentina state dinner. But do you have to do the tango with a dancer, while smiling and laughing?
Favreau said this was a “purposeful strategy” on the part of Obama, to show ISIS and other terror groups that they wouldn’t interrupt his schedule – and by extension, shouldn’t disrupt the schedule of other Americans. But when Americans have died in a major European city, some element of seriousness is appreciated as well.
Favreau and Pfeiffer think optics-driven feeling of Obama’s detachment to foreign policy crises is a cable news creation. Obama feeds this too (and we know he’s an amateur media critic from his hypocritical lecture this week). They don’t think the public is bothered by it. Favreau on Twitter this week pointed to the daily approval rating for President Obama, which is on the upswing to over 50% overall. That may be, although I’d argue Trump’s rise coincides more with the Obama approval rating rise than anything else. But on the issue of foreign affairs, Obama’s rating in the same polling system is significantly lower, around 40%.
The Obama administration (and those who have left recently) feel the president is empowered now, with no election looming, to be himself. To act as he sees fit. Obama embraced his inner DGAF in Cuba and Argentina. But perhaps he should show he GAF still.
There’s another element to the optics counter-critique as well. “The president and certainly ourselves have made optics mistakes over the years and we try to learn from them, but none of that actually really matters that much in terms of the policy issue,” said Pfeiffer. “George W. Bush for what I think were sincere good reasons decided to stop playing golf during the Iraq War, but that wasn’t exactly the turning point that helped America win the Iraq War.”
The implication here is that, sure, maybe the optics don’t look good, but optics mistakes don’t actually relate to policy.
This is also untrue. In the 10th episode of this season of the Serial podcast, Sarah Koenig and her team focused on the Rose Garden ceremony featuring President Obama and Bowe Bergdahl’s parents. She talked to both those who served with Bowe Bergdahl and those who served in the administration who said this moment was the turning point for what was to come. “Is this all about the optics?” Koenig asked Mike Waltz, who commanded an Army Special Forces unit in Afghanistan when Bergdahl went missing. Waltz made it clear it was not. “I don’t believe I would have been as vocal” without the Rose Garden ceremony, he said. “That was an incredibly tonedeaf move on the part of the White House. It shows how disconnected they are from both the Pentagon and [Obama’s] truly lack of understanding of military culture.”
A former member of the Obama administration told Koenig: You’re pretty isolated when you work in the West Wing…We should have thought about it more. That there were other audiences who were watching, people who had suffered.”
For Favreau and Pfeiffer, two major voices in the ear of President Obama throughout his time in the White House, this isolation has led to a misplaced believe that the American people don’t care about the moments they dismiss as merely optics errors. They think it’s just about how CNN or Fox News spins it, or what Joe Scarborough may say. The years of mainly conversing with D.C. politicos and media members has tainted what it means to be an observer in the real world. And in the case of last week, observing an American president doing the wave with an oppressive Cuban dictator and dancing the tango the day of and day after a terror attack where Americans died.
“Optics” is a terrible word for what is real concern over a significant disconnect with our leader, who we want to get comfort from and feel safe with at the helm. And dismissing those concerns as mere media creations is part of the problem.