Tom Bevan of Real Clear Politics writes a pretty balanced article on President Obama's actions following the terrorist attacks in Belgium while on his trip to Cuba.
Obama has received considerable criticism regarding his reaction to the terrorist attack, especially from Republican candidates for president.
Critics were especially indignant that Obama chose to attend an exhibition baseball game between Cuba and the Tampa Bay Rays.
Bevan agrees that the optics were bad. He especially notes Obama in sunglasses and khakis being interviewed by an ESPN reporter. He is concerned that the message generated by Obama's actions may be that the Brussels' attacks are not such a big deal.
Yet he makes several important points. First, it has been traditional that the 'show must go on' going back to Franklin D. Roosevelt and George Bush after 9/11. Public officials are always encouraging citizens to go on with their lives after a terrorist attack. Also, this was not an attack inside the United States which would have warranted a return to Washington.
It should be remembered that the president was not on vacation. He was in the middle of a historic and important trip to Cuba which followed months of careful planning. A president can't just drop everything as if nothing he is doing is important. As Obama has often said, he needs to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
I agree with Bevan and would go further in a couple of areas. First, let me mention the baseball game. It is not like Obama decided to attend the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament. I think it is a distortion to speak of this as just a game. The game was an integral part of the trip. It was part of the diplomatic effort to open up our relationship with Cuba. Think Nixon to China, and table tennis.
There are some who think the overture to Cuba is a mistake, but to characterize this baseball game as just a game seems to me more of an attempt to criticize the entire trip rather than to relate it to the Brussels attack. Obama left after the third inning. A failure to attend at all would have significantly jeopardized the objectives of the trip.
No one doubts the tragedy of Brussels or the significance of the problem of terrorism in Europe. What exactly however, would the president have been expected to do if he had returned home? Bevan says he should have skipped the game and made important phone calls. He did make important phone calls. He was constantly briefed, and he made clear his condemnation of the attacks. While I agree there was a problem of optics, I have to say I think effectively completing all aspects of the Cuba trip was more important than trying to satisfy whatever optics may have been involved.
When I hear Bevan saying that Obama was sending a message that the Brussels attack was not such a big deal, what I hear him saying is that the Cuba trip was not a big deal. After more than fifty years of animosity between our two neighboring countries, and the intervention of Pope Francis to open the way for diplomatic relations, I think the Cuba trip is a big deal. I believe at least a small breakthrough was made in our relationship with the Castro regime on this trip which could have been lost by a hasty return to Washington. Raul Castro accompanied the president on his trip to the airport and saw him off as he headed to Argentina to continue his trip.
I think I will forgo any discussion of President Obama's performance of the Argentine tango at this time.