Katrina v. Border Crisis: The Trouble With 'Optics'

I've been writing about politics for a long time, and it's a tribute to the dynamism of our glorious democracy that every time I think that things couldn't get any stupider, I'm proven wrong yet again. While we face a genuine humanitarian and policy crisis on our southern border, with thousands of children making their way across hundreds of miles to wind up in the arms of the Border Patrol, the news media allowed Republicans to turn the focus to the deeply important question of whether or not President Obama would travel there to mount a photo op. Seriously.

Then because it wasn't removed enough from reality already, people in the media are now talking about whether Barack Obama does photo ops and how often, because if he rejected a photo op on this particular issue but has photo-opped before, then I guess he's a hypocrite and therefore...um...therefore something.  

I'm not saying that "optics" are, per se, a bad thing to discuss. I certainly agree with Kevin Drum that as a general matter, "how something will look to other people" is often worth contemplating; After all, that's a good portion of what politicians and those who work for them spend time thinking about. And I write about it plenty myself. The problem comes when we're dealing with times when choices are being made and events with consequences are occurring (unlike an election campaign, which is purely an exercise in persuasion), and some people—in this case, both politicians and reporters—act as though the optics of a situation are the only thing that matters. It's particularly crazy when there's a genuine crisis happening and we're trying to arrive at a solution.

Another problem is that when we talk about "optics," we do it so poorly, in particular by ascribing all kinds of power to rhetoric and images that they don't actually possess. People are still convinced that the president can give a single speech and utterly transform the dynamic of a political situation (he can't), and that a particular image isn't just a useful encapsulation of events that occurred, but the thing that caused events to occur the way they did.

So for instance, in trying to argue that Obama should go stage a photo op at the border, many people have pointed to that picture of George W. Bush looking out the window of Air Force One at the devastation of New Orleans, to argue that a photo can have significant negative consequences on a presidency. But not only do they have the Katrina comparison exactly backwards (as I argued over at the Post yesterday, the problem there was that Bush wasn't doing anything, while the problem now is that Barack Obama wants to do some things but Republicans in Congress don't want to do anything), they don't seem to understand why people found the picture of Bush resonant and memorable. It was because for many people it accurately captured his government's failure (Bush was soaring above the ground, too removed to understand the human suffering going on below). But people weren't persuaded to believe that by the picture, they were persuaded to believe that by the actual events that occurred; the picture just became a symbol of it. Let's not forget that thousands of people died in Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath (estimates vary from 1,400 to 3,500). Bush would have suffered in the public esteem whether he had pictures taken of him or not. Reality was the problem, not the optics.

And that's what will matter in this case too. Either the administration will succeed in dealing with this problem (with or without Congress' help), or it will just get worse. And no picture is going to change that.

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