They call it "optics."
The White House has a team of people — you taxpayers foot the bill, of course — that spends its days thinking of the best way to portray the president in the most favorable light. ("Maybe we should snap him riding a bike in Hawaii?" "Let's snap him playing hoops!" "His 122nd round of golf? No cameras please.")
But sometimes, they snooze. Like last week, when The Team let the president step out — for the cameras — at the Door of No Return.
Now, President George W. Bush stood at the very same spot in 2003, but at a different place entirely — stunning party pickups in the 2002 midterms, majority in the House and Senate, headed to re-election, on the top of the world. It was a picture, nothing more.
Thursday, though, was some very bad "optics." President Obama, standing alone, morose, looking down, sullen, mock contemplative, within the Door of No Return. Below him, rust-stained cinder blocks, craggy rocks of a shallow port, the Atlantic Ocean.
At another time, meaningless. But at this precise moment, a few frames that encapsulate the president, now, and his plight in millions of ways — far beyond the few million megapixels.
First, the scene wasn't what it seemed. While the Huffington Post called it "very powerful moment" — the president standing at a doorway in Senegal from which Africans were said to have been shipped across the ocean into American slavery — it was not that at all.
He was, in fact, standing at a garbage chute.
"Pictures on Thursday," The Telegraph newspaper reported, "showed Mr. Obama standing with his wife Michelle at Goree's so-called Door of No Return, a dark passageway from where the fort's human cargo is said to have been loaded via gangplanks onto ships. However, despite the claims that millions of slaves passed through the door, its most likely use is now thought to have been for disposing of rubbish. Likewise, the waters it overlooks are too rocky and shallow for a slave ship to have used it as a loading bay."
So, like so many things with the president, all was not as it seemed. "There are literally no historians who believe the Slave House is what they're claiming it to be, or that believe Goree was statistically significant in terms of the slave trade," said Ralph Austen, a professor at the University of Chicago.
From the doorway, across the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Obama may have seen his presidency, just six months into Term 2.
Right now, the president has nothing but problems. He is universally despised on Capitol Hill — as much by Democrats as Republicans. The American people are finally abandoning him and his hollow promises in droves: "Majorities disapprove of his handling of the deficit (63 percent disapprove), the economy (58 percent), gun control (57 percent), health care (55 percent) immigration (53 percent) and foreign policy (50 percent)," Fox News reported.
The endless scandals are beginning to catch up to him: Benghazi, IRS targeting of political foes, phone-record grabs of Americans and reporters, National Security Agency surveillance. His approval rating, like many U.S. homeowners, is upside-down: 43 percent approve, 51 percent disapprove. That means he's lost at least 8 percent of the 51.1 percent of those who voted for him just nine months ago.
And his entire second term agenda is heading to shores as rocky and shallow as those of Goree Island. His immigration push is about to be a colossal failure. The House will never vote on the Senate bill — never. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn't been in D.C. long enough.
This is Mr. Bush's Social Security reform all over. Months into Term 2, W set out on a 60-day national tour to sell his reform. By October, his own GOP-led Congress had tabled the plan. Presidency over.
Even before Mr. Obama headed off for a weeklong walkabout in Africa, he committed his own Bill "I'm Still Relevant" Clinton moment. In April 1995, only three months into his second term, just one network aired his presidential news conference. Stung, he said, "I am relevant. The Constitution gives me relevance. A president, especially an activist president, has relevance."
But he didn't, not really. Sure, he signed the Welfare Reform Act in 1996, but that was passed by the Republican-controlled Congress. All that was left for Mr. Clinton was scandal.
Mr. Obama's moment came June 17, when he sat for an interview with Charlie Rose. After a barrage of questions about the numerous White House scandals, the president, a bit snippy, said: "Some people say, 'Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he's, you know, Dick Cheney.' "
"I'm no Dick Cheney": A sad and desperate plea from a president standing at his own Door of No Return. But from there, he could see that his presidency is destined for the trash chute of history.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times and is now editor of the Drudge Report. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @josephcurl.