Randi is on a brief leave. This column was originally published March 31, 2016.
Instead, he dances the tango in Buenos Aires.
On a trip to Argentina last week, the president and Michelle Obama attended a state dinner in their honor, where they enjoyed a tango performance and were then invited onto the dance floor. The first couple stepped smoothly into the complex dance, displayed some graceful moves and left the floor, having done America proud.
Unfortunately, the long-planned trip last week to Cuba and Argentina coincided with a deadly ISIS attack in Brussels that killed 35 people and wounded some 300 others. No sooner had word of the attacks hit the media than critics began huffing and puffing about the president’s trip, his attendance at a baseball game in Cuba and particularly his tango debut as proof that he is too removed from world events that impact America and its allies.
Talking heads on multiple news outlets questioned the “optics” of the situation — how it looked for an American president to be seen having a good time when friends near and far were hurting.
In a New York Times column many years ago, William Safire wrote, “How did optics achieve buzzword status in American politics?” He noted, “‘Optics’ is hot, rivaling content. When politicians fret about the public perception of a decision more than the substance of the decision itself, we’re living in a world of optics.”
I didn’t hear anyone complaining when Obama put on a game face, along with his tux, went to the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner and delivered a really funny stand-up routine, even as our Navy SEALs were preparing for their raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. The president had given the “kill” order before departing the White House for the dinner. There was no hint of tension or stress in his demeanor that night. Look at the clips. The man was completely cool and composed. He is a master of optics when he needs to be, but he is not a poseur.
He performed that night, and in some ways, that was what he was doing in Cuba and Argentina last week. He was performing, and he was brilliant. The historic trip to Havana marked the first visit by a U.S. president in nearly 90 years, a remarkable gesture of friendship and a real beginning of political and economic rapprochement. The idea that the president should not appear to have a good time when he is on a political mission is absurd.
He delivered exactly the right message. ISIS will not stop our lives or our travel or our laughter or our fun. We will deal with the terrorists here and abroad, but we will not allow them to alter our lives more than we have to. We will not give them that validation or power.
In fact, as he was gliding across the dance floor, orders were already in place to launch a U.S. commando raid in Syria that took out ISIS’s second-in-command last week.
In Cuba, the president commented on the Brussels attack. He commiserated and, more important, offered Americans support in the fight. And then he flew to Argentina, sticking to his itinerary, and he ended his visit not with the tango, but with a stop at a memorial for the tens of thousands of Argentines killed and “disappeared” during the brutal military dictatorship of the 1980s.
This was a diplomatic coup. This is what good presidents do. They don’t worry about optics, as defined by their critics. Had Obama abandoned his trip and headed home when the terrorists hit Brussels, it would have conferred a great deal of power on ISIS. They would know they can change world events, even the travel plans of an American president. It would have sent a terrible message.
A year and a half ago, when Obama played a round of golf on Martha’s Vineyard shortly after the news broke about the killing of journalist James Foley by ISIS, the media went berserk. How did it look? How could he enjoy golf after hearing such awful news? Given a mulligan, he has said, he might have made a different choice that day.
But I get it. Every hour of every day, the president is forced to make impossible choices. He is required to make decisions that everyone else working for him cannot. He hears all the awful news from every available source around the world. With it all, he is still just one man, living one life.
I don’t for a minute believe that his baseball outing in Cuba or his dance in Buenos Aires or his golf game deliver any message except that he is emotionally tough and able to compartmentalize sorrow and move on with the responsibilities of his office. I wonder what all those optics watchers would prefer. That he fly away home to D.C. and keen over the dead? Give ISIS the satisfaction of stopping the American president in mid-stride?
Obama can multitask. He can do stand-up while worrying about a high-risk mission to kill bin Laden. And it is my belief that he can dance the tango while carrying the worries of the world in his head and his heart.
Copyright 2023 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.