Why the Border Bigots Are Beating Obama

Yes, Rick Perry is awful for not shaking his hand, but the president needs a Pope Francis-like moment with the border kids to signal America is more than racists.

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Let’s get Rick Perry’s jackass-ery out of the way quickly: Refusing to shake hands in public with the president of the United States is just an idiot thing to do. Perry is trying to claim the faux moral high ground here by arguing that he held out for a more substantive meeting and got it, but come on. It’s not as if that meeting wouldn’t have happened if the governor had shown up on the runway. What exactly does Obama get out of a public handshake with a hard-right, not that bright, confusingly optometrized Texas Republican?

This might be a paragraph you can wave in my face on January 21, 2017, and God knows I’ve written a number of them, but: Rick Perry ain’t never gonna be president. We’ve been watching him on the national stage for a while now. Forget the third thing he forgot. The problem is that his instincts are wrong, his timing is bad, his hand is heavy. Accusing the White House of orchestrating a “coordinated effort” to help the movement of tens of thousands of children? That’s just Tea Party nonsense. He’s a guitarist who never knows what notes not to play. Now, guitarists like that have fans, sometimes millions of them. But they don’t ascend the plinth of greatness. He just has “governor but nothing more” written on his face.

Now let’s turn to the guy who did ascend the plinth, at least in terms of becoming president. What is he doing on this issue of the immigrant children? They were asking on Hardball Tuesday night whether this might be Obama’s Katrina. We’ve had a string of little crises that were all supposed to be Obama’s Katrina, and they’ve mostly been jokes. Slate’s Dave Weigel counted up nine of ’em. It’s been silly. But somehow, this one didn’t ring so false to me when Matthews et al were discussing it Tuesday night.

For one thing, there is the specific parallel of the flyover: Obama was going to Texas for a fundraiser but wasn’t planning on going to the border? I usually try to ask myself what I’d be saying if a Republican did X, and if a Republican did that, I’d be teeing off. It’s not defensible.

Second, Obama is at a really vulnerable point in his presidency, I think, not dissimilar to the point George W. Bush was at in August 2005, when Katrina hit. Then, Bush’s approval rating was generally in the mid-40s, as Obama’s is now. Hanging on, but vulnerable to one straw that could break the camel’s back. Obama is in that place now. And this is pretty far afield, but keep an eye on Aleppo in Syria. Aleppo has been a stronghold of the more legitimate opposition to Bashar al-Assad. It might be about to fall to Assad’s forces. This, two weeks after Obama announced a big aid package for the moderate rebels. Syria is Obama’s biggest foreign policy failure—he should have delivered that $500 million to those forces long ago, but he delayed. When Assad’s recapture of Aleppo is consummated, Obama is going to look played again.

That delaying is a pattern. I don’t understand it. I covered New York mayors. When a crisis hits, you go. If it’s 3 in the fucking morning and way out in some part of Staten Island you’ve never even heard of, you go. Obama should have been in Texas or California or Arizona last week.

But saying what? That’s the problem. If we lived in a better country, we’d take these kids in. It’s obscene that we don’t. Used by jackals, no life to go back to at all. Yes, I guess we can’t encourage 200,000 or 300,000 to come. But we could at least be housing them in circumstances better than 20 of them sharing one toilet. It’s disgusting and makes me ashamed, and it should you.

But Obama is the last person in America who can say that. He’d be pilloried. Maybe impeached (reason, what, five, to the right?). And that tells us what’s really tragic about this crisis. We have a political system that not only can’t solve this particular crisis, it is virtually guaranteed never to solve it. That’s almost all the Republicans’ fault. Anything that embarrasses Obama they’re going to play up, of course, but it’s also the raging xenophobia of their base.

Still, this is the kind of situation where the people who voted for Obama want him to do...something. They understand the political constraints. They know he can’t do a lot. But a Pope Francis-esque gesture of some kind: As the pope washed the feet of women, would it be too much for Obama to go to one of these horrid shelters and read these children a story? Kick a soccer ball with them? Would that really kill him in the polls? Most liberals aren’t unrealistic, contrary to what you normally read. But they want to see little manifestations of courage from the man they voted for. This is a prime moment for exactly that.

I think the White House in these circumstances underestimates the American people. The American people, thank God, aren’t right-wing bigots and blowhards. They’re actually pretty decent. You just have to find that yin of decency and locate the gestures and words that smother the yang of fear. It can be done. The media poke fun at “hope,” but what hope meant was that many Americans just wanted Obama to be able to do that—to say to the world, “We are this generous people, not that fearful people.” It didn’t, and still doesn’t, seem too much to ask.