Something truly wonderful happened last night during President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s visit to Argentina. They danced the tango. While cameras were rolling, no less. Attending members of the White House Press Corps flooded Twitter with shots of both doing their best to follow two professional dancers at a state dinner held in Obama’s honor, and footage of the “Por una Cabeza”-driven extravaganza went viral overnight. Unfortunately, these images hit everyone’s news feeds mere days after the Brussels terrorist attacks — a point of contention that fueled evening and morning shows on every major cable news network.
The president had already taken heat from Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz and others for remaining in Cuba on Tuesday. During an interview with ESPN at a baseball game he attended with Cuban President Raul Castro, however, Obama argued that all terrorists could do was “disrupt our daily lives and divide us.” So, the best course of action, he claimed, was to not “allow that to happen.” Hence why Obama and his entourage decided to continue their South American tour with a scheduled stop in Argentina on Wednesday.
Obama’s response to the initial criticism stemmed further backlash for a moment. Yet pictures and video of Wednesday night’s tango, which Obama participated in at the invitation of a professional dancer hired to entertain guests at Argentinian President Mauricio Macri’s state dinner, only made the situation worse. Or at least that was the general sentiment of cable news anchors and political pundits on countless panel shows.
CNN’s John Berman was one of the first to hit Obama’s tango on Wednesday night, noting that “a lot of what’s being said on the Republican side right now is in reaction to how President Obama is dealing with this most recent terrorist attack in Brussels.” Critics were particularly incensed by what they perceived as “the lack of reaction,” he continued. So, to illustrate these points, Berman cued raw video of the Obamas tangoing in Argentina.
The anchor then turned to CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen and asked whether or not the president’s dancing was “the image the White House wants to send” after Brussels. Gergen, a former adviser to past presidents, paraphrased Obama’s ESPN quote in order to explain the White House’s strategy of “restraint,” but he still thought the tango wasn’t the best idea:
“I think people now, after all these attacks… We’ve had an attack around the world for the last 12 days. But after San Bernardino, and Paris, and Brussels, and Ankara, and Istanbul, people are looking for more forceful action.”
In other words, Gergen didn’t think that the Obamas dancing with two slim, sleek dancers while musicians played “Por una Cabeza” in the background was the best look for the President of the United States in the midst of a global terror crisis.
The Thursday morning panel on MSNBC’s Morning Joe agreed with Berman and Gergen’s points about Obama’s image problem, albeit with more force. When hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski asked Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass about the Cuban baseball game and the tango, he defended the latter at first. Per his reasoning, “Argentina is actually one of the very rare good news stories in the world” due to its pre-democratic history with dictators, and the president’s visit was an important milestone for the current White House and for the two countries’ diplomatic relations.
Yet Haas was quick to suggest that the tango itself was a horrendous image problem:
“That was a tremendous mistake. It’s fine to go to Argentina, you want to do the work, but you’ve got to be careful of these little photo ops and optics. Baseball games and tangos, that’s inconsistent with the seriousness of the day.”
Aside from Brzezinski, who opined that Obama’s strategy of normalcy was “strange,” all the other panelists on Thursday’s show agreed with Haas with varying degrees of concern or contempt. Former President George W. Bush’s communications director, Nicolle Wallace, dubbed Obama’s “policy choice” a “communications crime” and ridiculed his decision not to return to Washington, D.C., while Hillary Clinton supporter Steve Rattner thought the whole thing could have been handled better.
— FOX & Friends (@foxandfriends) March 24, 2016
And then there was Fox News. The dominant cable news channel’s premiere morning program, Fox & Friends, invited fellow Fox News colleague Judge Napolitano onto the show to discuss President Obama’s response (or lack thereof) to Brussels. Unlike his counterparts on CNN and MSNBC, Napolitano went straight for the predictable anti-Obama Republican talking points:
“At a time when we have a crisis, is that the impression that he wants to convey? He’s a great dancer and maybe he didn’t want to change his plans, but I’m not so sure he should be doing that when everybody else is worried about where ISIS is, who they’re going to kill next, and are they going to come over here? Perhaps he should be giving a different impression of strength and preservation of freedom and safety.”