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July 10, 2014 3:37 PM Sometimes Being There Is More Important Than Being Right

By Ed Kilgore

I have mixed feelings about the whole question of whether the President making a showy demonstration of his presence in the border region is a good idea. He might be waiting for a more propitious time—say, when he’s within a few Gallup Poll points of forcing congressional Republicans to appropriate money for more border resources. And showing up without a path forward might raise expectations of concrete action that he can’t meet.

Still, Charlie Pierce is right: this is what presidents are already expected to do:

The simple fact that the president is declining to go to the border while Glenn Beck is on the way down there with hot meals and soccer balls is a prima facie abdication of responsibility. It’s also goddamn embarrassing.
It’s “risky”? Are these people kidding? Who in the hell is he listening to? These kids have come thousands of miles, many of them through a desert. They have had to negotiate a universe of deadly hustlers, sex-traffickers, and other lowlifes incomprehensible to the rest of us. They have had to traverse a landscape without water or pity. They have had to make a journey through some of the hostile terrain, some of the harshest weather, and some of the darkest parts of the human soul just for a bunk in McAllen, Texas. That’s risky. What precisely is the president “risking” by going down there? A Senate seat in Colorado? He has no good options? Too bad. Sometimes, there aren’t any good options. That’s an unshakable truth about the office that he has sought and won twice.

Beyond the special role of the POTUS, there’s another point worth making about simple politics that Obama’s “rational” approach to this crisis just misses. I’m reminded of an anecdote about former Sen. Chuck Robb (sorry; I’ve looked for a link and cannot find it) encountering a constituent while campaigning in a grocery store who was beside herself with agony over some obnoxious decision by her local government. Robb responded by saying something along the lines of: “Your problem, as I understand it, is not within the jurisdiction of the federal government. However, my staff can direct you to the proper authority should you wish.” Some wag contrasted this with how Bill Clinton would have handled it: by hugging her, crying with her, and generally making her feel noticed. Clinton wouldn’t have been able to do anything about the local zoning board or whoever it was, but the constituent would have felt immensely better—a feeling that could easily be projected via media coverage. Instead, Robb basically wrote her a memo.

On occasion just showing up in a messy situation is more important than having a solution or being “right.” And it may be the only way for a president to pull rank and make the opposition look small.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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