Just after a passenger jet was shot down over Ukraine, President Barack Obama flew to Delaware to have a burger and fries at the popular Charcoal Pit restaurant and then to New York to attend a pair of private political events.
Obama spoke for less than a minute – approximately 38 seconds – about the doomed Malaysia Airlines passenger jet at the start of his remarks at the Port of Wilmington about the importance of repairing bridges and roads.
“It looks like it may be a terrible tragedy,” he said. “Right now, we’re working to determine whether there were American citizens on board. That is our first priority.”
Then Obama did what he often does and returned to his previously set public schedule.
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His insistence on maintaining his public events as scheduled at times of crisis or tragedy does not reflect what happens behind closed doors in those hours. On Thursday, he made phone calls to foreign leaders, as well as his national security staff. When Air Force One landed in New York, he stayed aboard for 18 minutes before stepping off.
But the juxtaposition of upbeat talk and images in public raises questions about what message he wants to send. Critics charge that he’s signaling he doesn’t care as much about some of the crises. Others counter that it reflects a cautious, methodical approach and a refusal to let events dictate his response before he’s ready.
Either way, his approach was very much on display Thursday.
In Delaware, he mingled with guests at the Charcoal Pit, joking that Delaware native Joe Biden recommended it. “Me and Joe, we share shakes all the time,” he said. To a young girl in the restaurant, he asked, “Do you give good hugs?”
At the port, in front of several large containers and a couple dozen construction workers wearing hard hats, he attacked Republican lawmakers, joked about Biden’s looks and gushed about how wonderful it was to be back in the First State.
Sticking to the script of the day is not unusual.
After four Americans were killed in Libya in 2012, he stuck to his plans to travel to Las Vegas to raise campaign contributions.
After Russian troops stormed into Ukraine in February, he attended a Democratic National Committee meeting later that day, joking that “this is now officially happy hour with the Democratic Party.”
In an email release Friday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee lambasted the president’s public moves Thursday, calling them part of a pattern. “Some might call it gross incompetence,” said the group, the campaign operation for Senate Republicans.
“With all that’s happening in the world right now, I think everyone would agree that the last thing the president should be concentrating on is fundraising,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
Leon Aron, resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said any unrelated action by a president immediately after a tragedy, from political fundraising to a policy speech, can suggest the incident is not worthy of his time or attention.
“The eyes of the world _ certainly the United States _ are on the president,” Aron said. “It’s symbolically important.”
The White House did not respond to questions, but some experts say that Obama is often likely to continue with his public schedule because he does not have enough information to speak publicly about the issue and does not want to appear as if he’s being forced to respond to events. He also might want to remain above the fray.
The strongest words of the day Thursday came not from Obama or Biden, but from Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who issued a written statement at 10:38 p.m. after Obama had returned from his trip.
“The United States is shocked by the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and we offer our deep condolences to all those who lost loved ones on board,” Earnest said.
“While we do not yet have all the facts, we do know that this incident occurred in the context of a crisis in Ukraine that is fueled by Russian support for the separatists, including through arms, materiel, and training.”
By Friday morning, the president changed his tone.
A stern-looking Obama entered the White House briefing room just before noon to announce that the United States had confirmed that one American was on board when a surface-to-air missile was launched from areas in Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists.
“Nearly 300 innocent lives were taken. Men, women, children, infants who had nothing to do with the crisis in Ukraine,” Obama said. “Their deaths are an outrage of unspeakable proportions.”
Leonard Steinhorn, a political communications professor at American University in Washington, said Obama is able to respond to a situation while traveling and engaging in other events.
“There’s an assumption he’s not paying attention,” he said. “We live in a hyper political and media era. Everything can seem like a crisis. . . . It doesn’t mean he needs to return to Washington. We could end up paralyzing the president’s ability to do anything.”
Steinhorn said it’s just partisan politics. “Every decision is second-guessed and criticized,” he said.