Obama and the Crises

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With Japan in a state of emergency and the Middle East still roiling in dangerous and unpredictable ways, President Obama has been notably absent from view over the past few days. This is of a piece with a recent strategy, coinciding with a staff shift that brought Bill Daley and David Plouffe to the White House, of trying to rise above the vagaries of the news cycle and stay focused on the long game (namely, jobs and growth as a message leading into the 2012 election). But at a moment when it feels that the world is reaching a full boil, it’s hard for the president not to speak. The challenge for the White House is in figuring out what Obama can constructively say. One lesson from the BP oil disaster is that there’s not much use in having the president personalize a crisis about which he can’t do much. (That limited power certainly applies to Japan, though less so to Libya– although in the latter case Obama has chosen not to intervene against Ghaddafi absent far more international backing.)

Recent events are also a reminder, as another campaign slowly gears up, of how much the presidency is about reacting to completely unforseen emergencies. In hindsight most of the 2008 campaign feels pretty irrelevant to a 100-year economic crisis, revolution in the Middle East, a giant oil spill, the shooting of a Congresswoman, and a possible nuclear catastrophe.

Obama leaves on Saturday for a four-day trip to South America.