Facing emergencies from Ukraine to the Mexican border, President Obama left Washington on Tuesday for a three-day Democratic fundraising trip amid signs that his image-makers are worried about criticism that the president’s excursion is an “unsavory distraction.”
Mr. Obama’s schedule on the West Coast is packed with five party fundraisers at the exclusive estates of wealthy donors, at a time when Israel is engaged in an escalating ground war with Hamas, European allies are grappling with the downing of a jetliner in Ukraine by Russia-backed separatists, and the administration is scrambling to stem to flow of unaccompanied minors from Central America.
A senior administration official described the challenges at home and abroad as “not a uniquely chaotic time,” but critics are accusing Mr. Obama of spending his time unwisely.
“With all that’s happening in our country and around the world — wildfires, droughts and international crises — I think everyone can agree the last thing the president should be doing is fundraising,” said Republican National Committee press secretary Kirsten Kukowski.
In a letter to the president, consumer activist Ralph Nader accused Mr. Obama of “impaired moral authority” and misplaced priorities.
“For someone who does not exactly have a Jim Farley type of personality, you certainly go to a lot of exclusive, political fundraisers all around the country,” Mr. Nader wrote. “This allocation of your time is not only an unsavory distraction from your presidential responsibilities, but it comes at an opportunity cost for other types of public interest and charitable groups whose gatherings would like to hear your timely remarks.”
Farley was an old-school Democratic Party boss from New York.
Mr. Nader told the president, “The moral authority to govern is an intangible, but very real characteristic especially in times of harsh public events. It stems significantly from one setting an example.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president is capable of handling numerous challenges simultaneously, asserting that Mr. Obama did so last week, holding fundraisers in New York while Israel invaded Gaza.
“Even in the midst of some urgent international matters, the president was able to attend to American interests around the globe while conducting the political functions that go along with the job,” Mr. Earnest said. “We anticipate that that will be the case this week.”
But in the wake of a trip two weeks ago where Mr. Obama was photographed shooting pool in a bar while rejecting Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s invitation to visit the Mexican border, there were fresh signs that the White House is concerned about the appearances of the latest fundraising trip.
He said the decision was “at least in part related to the challenges of doing a comedy show in the midst of some of these other more serious matters that the president’s dealing with in the international scene.”
With the president’s image taking a beating lately, even an Oval Office meeting with Mr. Obama and the surviving members of the Apollo 11 moon mission became a high-wire act for the White House.
The president’s aides allowed only still photographers to record the scene, and a journalist suggested to Mr. Earnest later that the reason was because the White House didn’t want televised footage of reporters calling out questions about Mr. Obama ending the U.S. manned space flight program during his presidency.
“Absolutely not,” Mr. Earnest said. “The president invited the crew members of Apollo 11 to the White House to honor their contribution to space exploration and to the innovation in the field of science.”
Mr. Earnest said television cameras weren’t allowed into the meeting because “the president has a very busy schedule.” TV correspondents noted that another recent White House “photo-op” that included TV cameras lasted only 38 seconds.
The exclusion of TV and print journalists from the meeting prompted the White House Correspondents Association to lodge a formal complaint with the White House.
“The astronauts were among the most visible televised national heroes this country has ever known,” CBS News correspondent Major Garrett told Mr. Earnest. “That entire program was financed by the American taxpayer. We believe that that is a classic definition of something that should have the broadest press coverage imaginable, and we are therefore lodging a complaint against your decision to keep us out.”
The president’s fundraising trip included a stop Tuesday night at the 10,000-square-foot lakefront home of megadonors Bruce and Ann Blume near Seattle. He will also attend a fundraiser Wednesday at the Los Altos Hills, California, mansion of philanthropists Judy and George Marcus.
Mr. Obama will mix in a policy event or two on the trip, including one to promote job-driven skills training in Los Angeles on Thursday.