How Lazy “Optics” Chatter Replaced Beltway Analysis

Critics pounced after President Obama recently addressed the rising threat of the terror group Islamic State. His answers didn't represent “a national rallying cry” (National Journal). He sent “mixed messages” (ABC News). The president was guilty of an “inartful phrase” (Politico), and he wasn't projecting “an image of presidential resolve” (Washington Post).

The president hadn't necessarily said anything inaccurate or made controversial claims. Critics just didn't like the way he said what he said. It didn't look or sound quite right.

On Meet The Press, Obama conceded he had made a specific error when he played golf after making a public statement about the brutal beheading of American journalist James Foley. “I should've anticipated the optics,” he said. “Part of this job is also the theater of it.” And he's right, optics do matter for a commander-in-chief, especially in his role as communicator. But optics and stagecraft aren't the only thing. And Beltway pundits proved themselves to be poor judges of optics when a Republican last occupied the Oval Office.

Please recall that the press loved President George Bush's “Mission Accomplished” optics in 2003, which foolishly implied the United States had won the war in Iraq.  (NBC's Brian Williams: “He looked terrific and full of energy in a flight suit.”) And don't forget Bush's "bring them on" taunt when he was asked about escalating attacks on American troops inside Iraq. (More than 4,000 Americans subsequently died in fighting there.)

A common complaint about the Beltway press is that journalists obsess over process at the expense of substance. (i.e. Who's up, who's down?) Sadly, we've now eroded to the point where process journalism has been eclipsed by an even more meaningless pursuit: “optics.”

Another description for the current press malady is theater criticism. Theater criticism means you don't offer solutions; you don't offer insights or analysis. Theater criticism means you simply detail everything the pitch-poor actor does wrong in terms of word choice, inflection and public emotion. (Or golfing.) Analysis is different. It's more difficult, more rigorous, and it's much needed.

Instead we got the tan suit meltdown. This was an actual tweet last month from one of the largest news organization in America:

How did we arrive at a place so trivial and vacuous?

For more and more commentators, optics--not substance--rule. The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus recently agreed that the country's current immigration failures were the “fault of House Republicans.” She then proceeded to pen an entire column attacking Obama's “erratic” style because he “looks weak” and he “looks political” in his decision-making.

The same went for Post colleague Dana Milbank: Obama's comments about the threat Islamic State posed to the United States were “probably true,” but unnerving nonetheless. Why? Obama wasn't projecting enough panic, apparently. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni argued that while Obama's recent foreign policy commentary “reflects a prudent disinclination to repeat past mistakes and overreach,” he nontheless failed to deliver “savvy, constructive P.R.” 

“Worrying about image projection and the degree of savviness in the Administration's P.R.,” noted media critic Jay Rosen, represents “signs of a press corps that can be deeply unserious about international politics.”

Domestics politics, too.

The media's simmering contempt for the president's golf game (dutifully fueled by Republicans) exploded into full view when it was reported Obama went golfing, while on vacation, the same day he addressed the press to sternly condemn the beheading of James Foley. But of course, the complaint about golf “optics” didn't begin with the protests over the handling of Foley's death. Various members of the media have been sniping about Obama's golf game (it looks bad!) basically since he was inaugurated in 2009.

Keep in mind that while he was president for two terms, Dwight Eisenhower played more than eight hundred rounds of golf as commander-in-chief. So no, with less than 200 presidential outings, Obama's not treading on any sacred ground with his golf-playing pace.  

The loudest optics complaints though, were registered over Obama's Islamic State comments. Alan Colmes perfectly summed up the extended kerfuffle, which mostly revolved around a (deliberate?) misreading of the president's comments:

President Obama should have said, “We have many options but have not yet decided on a specific strategy.” Instead, speaking in shorthand, he said, We Don't have a strategy," and he's being beaten up for that sentence, which ignores the rest of what he said. 

In terms of helpful context, I'd urge everyone read this Newsweek piece by Kurt Eichenwald, an authority on terrorism and how to the United States fights it. Eichenwald isn't a political writer and he doesn't handicap election seasons for a living. But he does understand the Islamic State, its complicated and vengeful relationship with the rest of the Muslim world, and how best the United States should aid the looming war against the sprawling terror coalition.

Here's the author's take on how the Beltway media's cry for instant Obama action is almost exactly the wrong approach:

For no matter how hated ISIS is among the other jihadists and Middle Eastern Muslims, the United States is despised more. A new American strategic blunder on par with the Iraq War would distract ISIS's Islamic enemies and turn the battle, once again, toward the U.S. If ISIS is to survive, it needs America to strike out rashly and harshly against it.

All this sounds like three-dimensional chess and it is. Unfortunately, in a world of Twitter foreign policy analysis and cable news blathering, America is rarely able to handle more than checkers when trying to address global threats.... So, remember this: Every time you hear some commentator say America should “do something,” they are reading from the ISIS script.

Eichenwald's analysis makes clear that the media pile-on over Obama's word choices remains irrelevant compared to what truly matters, and that the endless parsing of Obama's press conference phrasing is of little importance to the larger national security concern. Instead, the exercise comes across as an elitist parlor game.

Journalists are supposed to help clarify the world for us. Instead, too many are purposefully clouding it by getting bogged down in the hyper-selective dissections of presidential utterances, or dwelling on the “optics” of suits and golf.