President Barack Obama has broken the code.
“This isn’t theater,” the president said this week in Texas, when asked why he wasn’t visiting the border where thousands of children from Central America have been arriving. “This is a problem. I’m not interested in photo ops; I’m interested in solving a problem.”
Yet, as the week’s political debate unfolded along the southern border and in Washington as well, it became a rhetorical contest among the nation’s leaders of who could deliver the best lines. And who could win the photo-op competition in a virtual theater of the round — Twittersphere summer stock.
“Listen,” House Speaker John Boehner said of the border crisis. “This is a problem of the president’s own making!” the Republican from Ohio said in a Capitol news conference, his voice rising in an emotional flourish of exclamation points. “He’s been president for five-and-a-half years! When’s he going to take responsibility for something?”
Still in Texas, making the rounds of Democratic congressional campaign fundraisers, Obama was having no end of rhetorical fun with the fact that Boehner is, in one turn, initiating a lawsuit against the president for taking executive actions on his own, and in another, accusing him of taking no action.
The president evoked one of the many fine lines from “The Departed,” the 2006 film by Martin Scorcese about a legendary Boston mobster.
And where did the commander-in-chief deliver this cinematic allusion?
At the Paramount Theater, in Austin.
“There’s a great movie called `The Departed,”’ Obama told his Democratic audience, cheering him on. “There’s a scene in the movie where Mark Wahlberg — you know, they’re on a stakeout and somehow the guy loses the guy that they’re tracking — And Wahlberg’s all upset and, you know, yelling at the guy. And the guy looks up and he says, `Well, who are you?’ And Wahlberg says, `I’m the guy doing my job. You must be the other guy.’ ‘
“Sometimes,” the president concluded, “I feel like saying to these guys: `I’m the guy doing my job. You must be the other guy.”’
And the call from the audience? “`Obama, I love you.”
“So rather than wage another political stunt that wastes time, wastes taxpayers’ money, I’ve got a better idea,” Obama said in a rhetorical address to a faraway speaker. “Do something.”
`It is great to play at the Paramount,” Obama also told the Texas audience. “I think I finally made it. I finally arrived.”
For all the White House protestations about the criticism it was taking for delivering the president to several top-dollar party fundraisers in Texas without making a 250-mile side-trip to the border — spokesman Josh Earnest insisting they weren’t worried about “those optics” — Republicans were playing the optics of the absent president to their fullest.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who at first appeared intent on avoiding the ritual greeting of the president upon arrival at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, ultimately agreed to that theater of the tarmac where two opposing politicians shake hands, smile and board the presidential Marine One for a chopper-hop to a private meeting. And when he emerged, Perry produced a list of demands: First among them, Obama should go to the border.
The meeting seemed to go well:
President Obama shares a light moment Mayor Mike Rawlings, with Gov. Rick Perry at the end of the table. pic.twitter.com/kE9GcPbjoF
— Doug Mills (@dougmillsnyt) July 9, 2014
Obama maintained the two are actually aligned on the issues: “There’s nothing that the governor indicated he’d like to see that I have a philosophical objection to,” the president said after their meeting. And the Republican governor said in a letter to Obama the next day: “It is encouraging to know that you agree philosophically with the solutions I presented to you for achieving true border security.”
Nonetheless: “Mr. President, I cannot stress enough how important is is for you to visit the border.”
Then, off with the tie, on goes the field shirt, and cue the Twitter:
— Rick Perry (@GovernorPerry) July 10, 2014
Perry wasn’t making a solo appearance at the border.
This isn’t Hamlet.
This is Fox News.
He was traveling with Sean Hannity.
— Office of Gov Perry (@TexGov) July 10, 2014
And this theatrical duo was packing.
With Gov Perry pic.twitter.com/oLaxlpwgp8
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) July 10, 2014
It was all a president could do to compete with this sort of stagecraft.
Yet Obama already had invested some time this week in driving home the point that he was getting a first-hand understanding of the life of the audience. He even has adopted a stage name for these unscripted escapes from the bubble of the White House: He is “The Bear.”
In Denver, the Bear encountered a horse.
— POLITICO (@politico) July 9, 2014
And if Perry had a stern-mounted machine gun, Obama had a pool cue.
President Obama plays and crushes Gov. Hickenlooper at a game of pool at the Wynkook Brewing Company bar in Denver. pic.twitter.com/95qwisrZC4
— Nerdy Wonka (@NerdyWonka) July 9, 2014
After clobbering the governor of Colorado at the pool table in Denver, the president moved on to Texas, where he treated the patrons of a popular barbecue joint in Austin to some grub. The president peeled $20 bills off a healthy wad as he counted what it would take to feed his new-found tattooed friends at Franklin’s and his traveling crew as well — a tab exceeding $300 — only to pocket those Jacksons and finally pull out a credit card. A JP Morgan card.
And a fist pump over the counter.
— Doug Mills (@dougmillsnyt) July 10, 2014
And off Obama went, stage left — without a theatrical border tour — back to Washington, where the next act of reality politics is being written for a waiting audience.
— John Boehner (@johnboehner) April 30, 2014