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AWOL in Paris: What was Obama thinking?

One song President Obama probably isn't singing to himself right now is "The Last Time I Saw Paris."

In failing to put in an appearance at the mass street demonstration against the dark cloud of terrorism that has just visited the City of Light, he has brought on more allegations at home and abroad of aloofness and lack of empathy.

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He is particularly vulnerable, as on recent occasions he has not hesitated to hop on Air Force One to peddle his administration's recent economic resurgence around the country, touting the drop in the unemployment rate, the creation of new hires and a booming stock market on his watch.

It's all part of a renewed effort to cast the economy as on the right track and elevating again middle class income inequality as his party's battle cry, even though it failed to avoid the Democratic fiasco in the midterm elections.

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The jet flight to Paris these days is no more than six hours, and Mr. Obama easily could have made it. Or he could have sent Vice President Joe Biden or detoured Secretary of State John Kerry from other business in India to join the army of other major foreign leaders at the huge event.

Too late, presidential press secretary Josh Earnest lamely observed that it was "fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile" than American ambassador Jane Harley, who was already there and inconspicuous.

It can be argued that more symbolism than substance was involved, and that American commitment to France and to the fight against international terrorism is well established and understood. But in this era of global communications, when television and the Internet bring politics into the world's living rooms, Mr. Obama's absence inevitably came off as insensitivity on his part at least, and indifference at worst.

At home, his failure to hop over the pond on short notice was bound to reinforce the perception, among Democratic politicians particularly, that while this president may talk the talk in his speeches, he may seem less willing to walk the walk by going the extra mile, or thousands in this case, to put himself personally on the line.

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As former President John F. Kennedy demonstrated in his historic visit to Berlin in 1963 and his ringing city hall declaration that "Ich bin ein Berliner," nothing in politics takes the place of going there and saying it oneself, to garner good will abroad.

It's an old axiom in American politics that when a president is in trouble at home he often goes to foreign sites to find a friendlier audience. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, did just that during his darkest days of the Vietnam War, when domestic streets were full of anti-war protests hounding him to get Americans out of it.

This latest case was one where the American president should have been in Paris for less callous personal reasons; to join in an expression of international solidarity with the people of France, as they and much of the world demonstrated for Americans in their grief and outrage following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on their homeland.

Republican presidential hopefuls for 2016 such as Sens. Ted Cruz ofTexas and Marco Rubio of Florida were fast out of the gate to castigate Obama for not going to Paris. It was an easy and predictable cheap shot considering their ambitions, but even had he gone, they may well have criticized him as playing politics with a tragic event.

Mr. Kerry arrived there Thursday after promising to "make it crystal clear how passionately we feel about the events that have taken place" -- in crisply accented French, no doubt. But he is not the president, as much as he might still want to be.

As for Mr. Obama, his empathetic presence with the other heads of state could have served him well beyond reaffirming American bonds with grieving France. Instead, with his tin ear for political opportunity as well as for personal responsibility, he resembles the Tin Man of the Wizard of Oz, who lamented in song that he could show "emotion, jealousy, devotion ... if I only had a heart."

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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