“This is not theater.”
That was President Obama’s answer in Dallas last week to critics who said he should have gone to the border to see firsthand the mass immigration of unaccompanied minors that has suddenly seized Washington’s attention.
The president is wrong. The terror, abuse and suffering of children shouldn’t be theater, but it is. All the political world today is a stage. Our national dialogue has become a series of one-act plays: Each runs for a week or two, the critics volunteer their reviews of the president’s performance, and then it closes just as quickly — perhaps, like Benghazi, to be revived for a second run at a later date.
Last week, Washington’s thespians were chorusing about the border crisis. Is it Obama’s fault? Has he mishandled it? The border situation will be much the same a couple of weeks from now, but it’s a safe bet that the political world will have moved on to another one-act show. My nomination: Whether Obama is to blame for the upsurge of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
So it has been going for months. Two weeks ago, the show was about the IRS and Lois Lerner’s missing emails. A week before that, Washington was deep in a seemingly existential debate about the terrorists who had overrun much of Iraq and Syria. Two weeks earlier, the play was about the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap with the Taliban. Two weeks before that, it was about the veterans’ health care scandal. A week before that, the play was about the kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria. A week earlier, there had been a brief reprise of the Benghazi show, because a previously unknown document had surfaced. Before that was the one-act play about Ukraine.
Such is the attention-deficit disorder that has come to afflict our politics. Those Nigerian schoolgirls are still missing. The situation in Iraq is every bit as grim as it was when Washington was paying attention, and perhaps more so. Ukraine is still volatile and veterans still aren’t getting the level of service they deserve. But now we care only about whether Obama’s failure to visit the border was his “Katrina moment,” after George W. Bush’s weak initial response to the 2005 hurricane.
There are many (including the media) to blame for leaving Washington in need of a group rate for Ritalin. Republicans had for years spent most of their breath on two issues — unemployment and Obamacare — but both have lost political potency now that job growth is accelerating and the health care law has stabilized.
Lacking another dominant issue, they’re trying the flavor-of-the-week approach. This aimless Congress (which makes no effort to set a legislative agenda) leaves a vacuum for Capitol Hill’s troublemakers to take up issues only to see what political damage they might cause.
Obama, too, has had a bit of an attention-deficit problem. In the last couple of weeks, for example, he has bounced in every direction, speaking about, among other things, the border, the economy, education, immigration, the highway bill, executive actions, gay rights and veterans. The bully pulpit isn’t what it used to be, but the president still can focus the nation’s attention on a topic if he hammers away at it relentlessly. Bush did this. Obama chooses not to.
As Washington drifts, the public follows. In last month’s Pew Research Center poll, which measured the percentage of Americans following major stories closely, the top story was veterans’ health care, followed by Iraq and the IRS. None of those was among the top stories the previous month, when the Nigerian kidnapping dominated. Before that, it was the missing Malaysian airlines flight. Before that: cold weather.
A decade ago, the Iraq War routinely dominated public attention. In recent years, the economy, and to a lesser extent Obamacare, did the same. For the first time in years, there’s no overarching crisis at home or abroad, and Obama can take some satisfaction in this. But the nation’s wandering attention will only worsen if Obama doesn’t try to help it focus.
A top Obama adviser, justifying the decision not to send the president to the border, told me that the hubbub would dissipate in a couple of weeks, even as the crisis, and the administration’s response, continues. That’s probably so, but it does Obama no good to piously shun theatrics. If he embraces his potential as writer, producer and director, he can stage a better production.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank. (c) 2014, Washington Post Writers Group