- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2014

Images of presidents at the Berlin Wall, ground zero in New York and, more recently, the New Jersey boardwalk devastated by Superstorm Sandy often are more important than words, specialists say, and aid commanders in chief in being seen as true leaders dedicated to comforting victims — rallying the nation following a tragedy or confronting crises.

But President Obama, while increasingly known for posing for selfies with sports stars, supporters and others, decried “photo ops” last week when defending his decision not to visit the U.S.-Mexico border while fundraising for the Democratic Party in Texas.

The choice has drawn the ire of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and has puzzled some political pundits and photojournalists who say the president’s explanation missed the mark in several ways.

First, they say Mr. Obama could’ve received favorable news coverage and appeared to be in command of the situation had he been photographed viewing the humanitarian crisis at the nation’s southern boundary firsthand.

Second, and more broadly, analysts say Mr. Obama — along with all presidents who served before him in the age of photography — creates “photo ops” virtually anytime he appears in public.

In just the past few months, the president has visited the site of tornadoes in Arkansas, the damage caused by a mudslide in Washington and other locations. He famously strolled the New Jersey boardwalk with Republican Gov. Chris Christie in May 2013, getting a look at recovery efforts after the area was leveled by Hurricane Sandy.

SEE ALSO: CURL: The hypocrisy of Obama’s 15-day Vineyard vacation

Those events surely could be considered photo ops, raising questions about why, when it comes to the southern border, the president would cite a dislike of “theater” as a reason not to go.

“I think, trying to read into this the best of intentions from what the president said, I think he was basically saying ‘I’m not going there [for] the purpose of being photographed.’ But that said, he is photographed all the time,” said Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, and who has four decades of experience as a photojournalist.

“Why he decided to go or not, or say what he said, I’m not sure. But as far as I’m concerned, and as far as news photographers are concerned, when the president is out in public doing business of the government, he should be able to be photographed by the press,” he said.

While the president was in Texas, members of Congress from both parties called on him to visit the border in order to gain a deeper understanding of the problems there. Tens of thousands of children, mostly from Central America, have flooded across the border recently, leading the administration to ask Congress for $3.7 billion to address the situation.

Mr. Obama cited that request — along with the broader goal of a comprehensive immigration reform bill — as his way of addressing the border crisis, rejecting the idea of a personal visit.

On the heels of the Texas trip, reporters pressed the White House for a better explanation of the president’s rationale.

The administration’s response made the case that showing up at the border simply wouldn’t have contributed anything substantial.

“The point that the president was making on Wednesday is that this is about priorities. And when you prioritize photo ops ahead of solutions to actual problems, you’re not really accomplishing very much,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said last Friday. “But when you are focused on problems and occasionally using photo ops to confront these problems, that’s what real leadership is all about.”

But from a political perspective, specialists say, the administration erred.

By not going to the border, not only did the president open himself up to bipartisan criticism, he also allowed political opponents — such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican — to seize the issue and at times appear more dedicated to solving it than the president.

“President Obama missed an opportunity to demonstrate compassion and an understanding of the immigrant influx issue. If the president had gone to the border to tour a facility or simply observe the problem, he could have quelled criticism of his administration’s handling of the issue by appearing empathetic and in control,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has written about presidential leadership.

“Instead, several Republicans, especially Gov. Rick Perry, have taken advantage of the popularity of border security issues with Republican voters and [the] dislike of President Obama in Texas to gain a political advantage,” he said.

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