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What was Obama thinking? No high-ranking envoy linked arms at Paris unity rally

President Barack Obama’s decision not to go himself or to send a high-ranking American to the unity rally and solidarity march against radical Islamic terrorism in Paris, which was attended by more than 3.7 million people and led by the heads of 40 countries, was puzzling.

Obama should have marched with French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and dozens more to support freedom of speech and defy Islamic terrorism. New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica’s headline got it right: “America betrays its values by not sending top U.S. officials to Paris unity rally” and CNN’s Jake Tapper was on target when he indicated he was “ashamed” that high-ranking U.S. officials did not participate in the march.

The president was conspicuous by his absence at the biggest pro-freedom rally since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not only did he decline to participate, but he didn’t send either Vice President Joe Biden or Secretary of State John Kerry (who was meeting with India’s head of state on climate change). Even more bizarre, he didn’t direct Attorney General Eric Holder, who was attending an anti-terrorism summit in Paris, to attend the freedom rally.

The Obama administration’s action was reminiscent of its failure last year to send a high-ranking official to the funeral of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The White House in that case sent former secretaries of state George Shultz and James Baker III. Shultz and Baker knew and worked with Thatcher and were highly respected international figures; nevertheless, the administration seemed a little tone-deaf with regard to the symbolism involved in sending a high-level representative from the administration to a highly visible funeral of a renowned world leader.

The morning after the recent blunder, which was widely criticized by newspapers throughout the world, White House spokesman Josh Earnest fell on his sword, admitting to reporters that the administration erred by not attending the Paris unity march: “I think it’s fair to say we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there.”
But the question arises: Why did President Obama snub the Paris rally?

Some, like former President Jimmy Carter, attributed it to “President Obama’s just com[ing] back from vacation … . [The] desk is piled up, and he had pressing problems to address.”

PowerLine blogger John Hinderaker writes Byron York of the Washington Examiner thought the president’s snub wasn’t an oversight, “public relations gaffe or a matter of appearances,” “rather, skipping the Paris rally was consistent with Obama’s objective of minimizing the importance of terrorism as an issue.” Says York: “The administration no-shows were not a failure of optics, or a diplomatic misstep, but were instead the logical result of the president’s years-long effort to downgrade the threat of terrorism and move on to other things.”

President Obama’s critics at Fox News echo York’s perspective that “the problem is not just optics. Obama’s back-foot approach to confronting Islamic terrorism, and his unilateral (politically motivated) pronouncements that the war on terror is over, has cost the country plenty. Pulling troops out of Iraq and tripping over his chemical weapons ‘red line’ in Syria helped spawn the rise of ISIS.”

Some saw it as just one more example of the president’s growing disengagement in his second term. Again, according to Fox News, “he just really doesn’t care anymore.”

Others believe the security requirements needed for the president to attend the rally would have been extremely onerous. There is no doubt security would have been an issue, but it did not preclude Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from attending. Unless there was a credible threat against a high-ranking U.S. official, we should have been there.

None of these explanations are satisfactory. Having just finished watching the seven episodes of “The Roosevelts” on PBS-TV, I have no doubt FDR would have found a way to link arm-in-arm with the world’s leaders as they marched through the boulevards of Paris. He would have seen his participation as a means of bringing the country together and creating a platform for future initiatives.

FDR would have realized some issues transcend politics and unite liberals and conservatives. Support for the marchers in Paris has come from both liberals and conservatives, who both view terrorism as anathema to American values and precepts. Causes that bring people from the left and right together are rare. These kinds of events can have transformative power – not necessarily immediately, but often down the road, as they build a common sense of shared purpose.

President Obama is a decent, highly intelligent man and a gifted speaker who many had hoped would have been able to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to bring about needed change by communicating directly with the American people – cutting through the special interests that foster gridlock. Unfortunately, he lacks the innate ability that enables great political leaders to somehow seize circumstances, both good and bad, and bring us together as a people — bridging ideological chasms and hyperpartisanship to address our most pressing issues.