article

09.30.09

Obama's Strange Trip

Afghanistan is teetering. Unemployment’s sky high. And health-care reform’s in trouble. So why not fly to Copenhagen? Bush strategist Nicolle Wallace on the risks of the president’s road trip.

I love the Olympics. And I love the idea of an American city—any American city—being awarded the 2016 Summer Olympics. I also happen to believe that the president of the United States is always the president—no matter where he is. He does not need to be holed up in the Oval Office to do his job, so I don’t buy the argument that President Obama will be skipping out on his day job by traveling to Copenhagen.

But there are big risks for Obama in making the trip—and they have nothing to do with not winning the bid. The president seems to have forgotten the lessons that he helped teach an entire generation of political observers and operatives: Words matter, and so do appearances. President Obama will subject himself to three potentially damaging lines of attack when he boards the plane to Copenhagen. First, that he appears out of touch and absent at a moment of great domestic and international significance; second, that his priorities are parochial; and third, that he is disingenuous for reversing a statement made days ago that he could not make the trip because it would interfere with his health-care campaign.

In ordinary times, it would be charming for a president to tag along on the Michelle and Oprah tour, but these are not ordinary times.

Obama faces the most important national-security decision of his presidency in Afghanistan. And with many Americans still out of work and anxious about the economy, he’s pushing a massive overhaul of the way we all receive our health care. Logistically speaking, President Obama can study the assessment from General McChrystal on the plane or reach General Petraeus or Admiral Mullen or Secretary Gates by phone if he has questions. But Democrats and Republicans—and the vast majority of Americans—feel our efforts in Afghanistan are at a crossroads. While many Democrats like to point to mistakes made by the previous administration, Obama is the only commander in chief this nation has right now, and his trip leaves him conspicuously absent at a vital moment. As Senator John McCain said this week, “Time is not on our side, so we need a decision pretty quickly.” Senator McCain may not have prevailed in his campaign against Barack Obama last year, but his views on national security are respected by many, and Obama looks disconnected from this discussion by traveling to Copenhagen this week.

Big Fat Story: The Agony of the OlympicsMany Americans feel anxious about the expansion of federal authority since Obama took office—an anxiety that fuels further concern about his plans to increase the government’s role in health care. The country is broke, financially, and the public can see that Obama’s numbers don’t add up. Even a sixth grader can look at the massive stimulus package, the auto bailout, countless bank bailouts, cap and trade legislation and the projected costs of the Democrats’ health-care reforms and conclude that we’re spending money we don’t have. McCain calls it generational theft. Obama would be better served traveling to Las Vegas and trying to stimulate the tourism and convention economy he helped tank than flying to Denmark to try to win the Olympics.

The second risk is that Obama appears more committed to rooting for Chicago than rooting for America. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele struck the right tone when he said on Wednesday: “This trip, while nice, is not necessary for the president.” In ordinary times, it would be charming for a president to tag along on the Michelle and Oprah tour, but these are not ordinary times. The White House suggested that he was taking the trip to “root for America, “ and accused Chairman Steele of rooting for Rio or Madrid. That’s funny. Just a week ago, Obama took center stage at the U.N. General Assembly and did nothing closely resembling “rooting” for America. And while many admire his dispassionate ability to analyze our strengths and weaknesses as a nation, many conservatives find it disconcerting. Can we expect to see the cerebral law professor replaced by a male cheerleader on his next overseas jaunt?

Finally, he subjects himself to charges of committing a good old-fashioned flip flop. Days ago, Obama claimed he was unable to travel with Michelle and Oprah to Copenhagen because he was focused like a laser beam on his health-care proposal. That was before his plan suffered two losing votes on the public option—a key plank that seems to be tearing the Democratic Party in two (on one side, Michael Moore and a nutty Florida congressman who likened the current health-care system to a “Holocaust”; on the other, centrist members of the House and Senate).

I guess I’d take my chances against Rio, too, if I were him. Go Chicago.

Nicolle Wallace served as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign from May to November 2008. She served President George W. Bush as an assistant to the president and director of communications for the White House, as well as communications director for President Bush's 2004 campaign.