Hours after the Fort Hood massacre, a grieving nation looked to the president for consolation and leadership. Instead, it got light banter and a “shout-out” before President Obama read a perfunctory statement. The president has always had a reputation for coolness, but in this case, he was utterly detached. He can’t blame the scriptwriter for his astonishing lack of empathy.
Mr. Obama was scheduled to speak at the Tribal Nations Conference hosted by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Rather than canceling the photo op or addressing the tragedy from another venue, the president chose to open with the kind of obligatory thanks and recognitions that would be appropriate in any other circumstance but not this one. The emotional shift was jarring and confusing. It was as though he were an actor switching scripts heedless of the emotional content of the event he was addressing.
Mr. Obama recently came under criticism, chiefly from liberals, for visiting New Orleans but declining to view the damage from Hurricane Katrina. One local blogger dubbed it the “tinkle-stop tour.” “Not even a flyover,” one resident complained, referring to President George W. Bush’s aerial tour of the ravaged city, which many mark as the beginning of his decline in popularity.
Mr. Bush also suffered his critics’ ire for reading “The Pet Goat” to a group of schoolchildren at Emma E. Booker Elementary School after he was informed of the aircraft hitting the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He was charged with being out of touch, indecisive, tuned out. He was said to be unable to grasp the significance of the events unfolding around him.
The new president’s performance on Thursday afternoon was similar. As an anxious nation looked for reassurance, it saw a president conducting business as usual, seemingly unaware of the magnitude of the tragedy. By the time he got to his statement, the damage was done. It was Mr. Obama’s “Pet Goat” moment.