President Obama is an intellectually curious man, and is to be applauded for this. He follows in the tradition of such giants of the mind as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Such curiosity is noteworthy both because of its relative rarity and its relevance to the job of President. Our Chief Executive should be intellectually engaged, particularly given the extensive, imperative, and complex problems facing our nation and our world.
That said, it is a bit alarming to read about Mr. Obama’s recent penchant for late night dinners with physicists and soccer team owners. Here’s how the New York Times captured it: “In a summer when the president is traveling across the country meeting with ordinary Americans under highly choreographed conditions, the Rome dinner shows another side of Mr. Obama. As one of an increasing number of late-night dinners in his second term, it offers a glimpse into a president who prefers intellectuals to politicians, and into the rarefied company Mr. Obama may keep after he leaves the White House” .
His preferences for company are perfectly fine; that is, in my view, not an issue. Rather, there is the issue of his disingenuousness. For example, Mr. Obama refuses to visit our border on the pretext he doesn’t want a “photo op,” something so unbelievable that even John Dickerson of Slate writes, “The issue is not his unwillingness to engage in this particular form of presidential art. He’s making a choice: when a photo-op isn’t to his advantage, he elevates avoiding it to a high-minded ideal” .
Every politician likes opportunities to be photographed and filmed to his or her advantage. This is about as radical as saying that water runs downhill: Good visuals are to politics what icing is to cake. So, claiming that he doesn’t want to appear in a crisis-laden region because he doesn’t want to exploit it for political purposes is, frankly, phony. He and his advisors might feel there is no upside to his going to the border politically; I suspect he’s not going because illegal immigration is a terribly difficult issue and he doesn’t want to be photographed anywhere near it. But to claim that he is above “photo-ops?” C’mon, Mr. President.
In addition, in the realm of bad visuals, it looks disturbing to see the President wining and dining with the world’s elite while Latino toddlers languish in wire-fenced cubicles in south Texas, as Israel is on the verge of war, as Russia seems poised to invade Ukraine, as many millions of Americans remain unemployed, underemployed, or too discouraged to look for work , and so on.
Eating with the wealthy and powerful in elite international locations is not the photo-op you want, Mr. President, or that America needs. Good visuals should be incidental to good policy. If Mr. Obama takes that to heart, his enduring record will be much more profound than good B-roll.