Obama's Vacation Optics – Axelrod and Co. Fail to Protect President's Image

Richard Nixon had advertising executive H.R. Haldeman; Ronald Reagan had image master Mike Deaver; Barack Obama has public relations guru David Axelrod.

(The Oval Office, December 29, 2009. Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

All three men understood the power of visuals in communicating the strengths of the presidents they served on the campaign trail and in the office of the presidency.

I don’t know where David Axelrod has been since President Obama began his ten-day Christmas vacation in Hawaii, but it is safe to say he is goofing off as much as his boss.

(AFP Photo by Jewell Samad, December 27, 2009)

(AP Photo by Chris Carlson, December 31, 2009)

Since the Christmas Day terror attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on approach to Detroit, Axelrod and Team Obama have failed in their most basic duty of reassuring the American public that the president is on the job. It took four days, from when the attack occurred Friday morning Hawaii time to Monday afternoon Washington time, for Obama to be seen ‘on the job’ when he made a statement before the media about the terror attack.

Over that time span, the administration failed to update the White House web site with any mention of the attack.

AFP/ABC News December 28, 2009

AFP/ABC News December 28, 2009

In Obama’s absence, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano were sent out on the Sunday talk shows (except for Fox) to spin the administration line that “the system worked.”

That PR strategy was mocked across the boards, forcing the administration to put Obama in front of the cameras for the first time since he went on vacation.

Obama’s presentation Monday was emotionless in delivery and casual in its presentation. Wearing an open collar shirt, Obama looked like a man who showed up at a formal club without the required attire and was forced to don the club jacket hanging in the closet to get in.

Obama also seemed painfully uncomfortable without his TelePrompter security blanket. He struggled with the text at times and reflexively swiveled his head from side-to-side even as he stared down at the the printed remarks laid out on the podium before him.

That Obama went golfing right after he told the American people he “will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable” undermined whatever seriousness of purpose the administration was trying to convey.

When internal reviews by the administration started to show that the government had enough information to stop the terror attack before it happened but failed to act, Obama was hustled back before the cameras the next day to get in front of the bad news–standard PR disaster strategy. However, Obama was hustled in front of the cameras so fast the satellite feeds weren’t ready so the cable networks went live with only a ghostly audio address by a ticked-off sounding Obama. Video of the speech was shown later in the day but the damage was done. Team Obama was flailing.

Worse still was the failure of Team Obama to distribute still photos of Obama taking meetings and briefings on the terror attack.

The White House told the media that Obama was getting briefed several times a day and was participating in meetings and conference calls in between gym workouts, golf, tennis and beach outings, picnicking, snorkeling, fine dining and taking over a movie theater.

However, it was only yesterday–a full week since the terror attack–that the administration released a photo of a hard(ly)-working Obama on the telephone. But the photo is not featured on the White House Web site, instead it was posted to the White House’s Flickr account.

(Official White House photo by Pete Souza, December 31, 2009)

What is on the White House Web site’s front page for the third day in a row is the White House ‘photo of the day’ that features an empty Oval Office save for a cleaning woman running a vacuum in front of the president’s vacated desk. A more telling image could not be presented to the public of an absent leader, yet that is the message Team Obama has conveyed to the world for the past three days.

It is a time-honored public relations technique to release photos of the president taking meetings and otherwise appearing to be focused on the nation’s business while on vacation or away from the White House when a crisis strikes. While Team Obama focused on keeping the prying eyes of media cameramen out of sight of Obama for most of his vacation activities, they failed to provide a countering image of Obama at work behind the scenes.

Yesterday, in addition to releasing the one photo of Obama at work, Team Obama allowed the media to photograph Obama at his movie outing and golf game.

The photos of Obama on the golf course show him playing with a passion that was sorely lacking in his initial speech to the nation about the Christmas Day terror attack.

David Axelrod used public imagery to create an air of inevitability of an Obama presidency months before the election. He created the aura of a co-presidency between Obama and President George W. Bush in the two months between Obama’s election and inauguration.

The whereabouts of Axelrod and his magic touch are unknown. But in their absence Obama, who has been living like an aloof king at his $4000 per night $8.9 million Hawaiian vacation estate, is looking more and more like an emperor with no clothes.

The optics of this are not pretty.


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