Today we mourn the many thousands of pixels that burned to death needlessly Monday as an entire subclass of professional politicos pondered the urgent question of when a U.S. president can has cheezburger.
The question actually arose last week when President Obama didn't torch his schedule (which included eating a cheeseburger with a working class woman) and hightail it back to Washington upon learning that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 had crashed. But it fully flowered this week when National Journal's Ron Fournier published an article sub-headlined, "Ordering a cheeseburger with fries while a downed airline smolders may not have been a great decision."
It led to one of the great dialogues on leadership of our time.
Never mind that the people excoriating Obama for pressing ahead with his plans were basing their attacks on reports that turned out to be inaccurate. Absent a persuasive companion argument that Obama's responses to crises in Ukraine and Gaza would be better but for the decision to stick to his schedule, there is actually no right answer to the presidential cheeseburger question and, thus, no way to report on it in an enlightening way.
Alarmingly few political writers accept this. But unless you're in the business of determining which presidential actions poll best, there is no objective sense in which Obama was wrong to have his cheeseburger. It was wrong if you believe it's wrong for the president to dine publicly with commoners when important national and international issues remain unresolved. It was wrong if you have an aesthetic preference for symbolic acts of leadership over the steadier-handed approach of not panicking and flying back to Washington whenever bad news crosses the wire. It was wrong, in other words, if you believe these kinds of photo-ops are wrong in general.
Almost nobody really believes that, of course, which is why these kinds of arguments go in and out of fashion among various political professionals as events and partisan control of the White House change. For the most part the people making them are masking their political priorities with lame process arguments. If a president of either party were to take these admonitions seriously, the public would be driven to hysteria on a semi-regular basis, and the president would almost never be able to do politics after winning election for the first time.
These short-lived controversies arise all the time, though, because the media is institutionally incapable of treating them as the trivialities they are.
National political writers naturally spend a great deal of time talking to and socializing with political operatives. If your job is to access government officials, and political operatives are gateways to government officials, then talking to and socializing with political operatives is what you do. But when you filter your understanding of events through people whose job it is to optimize messaging, then you run the risk of overemphasizing the importance of public relations trade craft to the nuts and bolts of governing.
One problem with this is that it's hard to find evidence that the optics of most discrete events have much, if any, lasting impact on public opinion. Another is that it's basically impossible to report on the quality of optics in an objective way. Not only is evaluating the quality of a particular message an inherently subjective enterprise, but critics tend to have ulterior motives for concluding that a politician bungled or nailed a particular act of public theater. It's a rigged game.
Nobody should play it. But if you play it, one of three things is true. Either you:
1) See the job of reporting on national affairs as tantamount to being a member of the public relations trade press. (This is typified by scouring public statements not for new developments but for gaffes that a newsmaker's political opponents in the P.R. industry will use against him.)
2) Are an ideologue who uses P.R. critiques to advance unrelated political goals.
3) Genuinely confuse aesthetic choices you don't like for policy mistakes.
If you believe your job is to inform news consumers, none of these should apply. There are times when it makes sense for a president to upend his schedule to attend to unforeseen, pressing business that requires his undivided attention. But they're rare. If you find yourself behaving as these moments happen on a weekly or monthly basis, you're doing it wrong.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.