Barack Obama’s first public statement on the mosque plans near New York’s Ground Zero was perfectly scripted from a communications perspective. It was timed for a Friday night, the weekly news cycle’s black hole. He spoke before a Muslim audience at a dinner celebrating Ramadan. His statement was carefully scripted, and focused both on recognizing the continuing pain of September 11 and the American tradition of religious freedom.
Then came Saturday. The president wasn’t supposed to address the mosque again. But he did have to walk by his press pool on his way to lunch with his family. He was joking around. He looked to be in a good mood. A reporter asked a stray question, and Obama blew all the careful planning of his staff. He varied from his initial remarks, creating a new narrative for a story the White House does not want to linger. Was he adding an asterisk to his remarks, as the Washington Post put it? Was it a recalibration, as the New York Times put it? In short, this is a communications disaster. The White House had to release a statement clarifying the new statement, or restatement, or whatever. The president’s opponents, who had been pushing the mosque issue for weeks as a way to get Democrats on the wrong side of the polls in an election year, came out celebrating. Liz Cheney, who can diminish just about any nuanced thought into a barbed cable news talking point, emailed Politico’s Mike Allen from her iPhone. “I guess President Obama was for the mosque before he was against it. You can quote me,” went the message.
Now everyone is riled up. The story will stay in the political bloodstream for another day or three. And President Obama has another reason not to talk to his press corps on the record. As a rule, Obama avoids much interaction with those who follow him on a day to day basis. He will have reporters and columnists over for the occasional off-the-record lunch, but the daily chit chat is kept to a minimum. In this way, he distinguishes himself from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, two more natural schmoozers. But Saturday’s gaffe represents the second time this year that an unscheduled chit chat with the press corps caused him big problems. In late April, he came to the back of Air Force One and said “there may not be appetite” for immigration reform, an admission dubbed by one reporter Obama’s “fatal flinch” that infuriated Senate leaders and Hispanic voters, and effectively ended any hope for the bill passing this year.
Obama’s hesitance for impromptu moments with reporters is bad for people like me. And it may, in some ways, be bad for democracy, as voters are denied the opportunity to see their leader without a script. But Obama is by no means the first person to realize the dangers of talking off the cuff with reporters. John McCain can tell you.