Why was Obama a no-show at Landstuhl Medical Center?

The controversy over Barack Obama’s decision not to visit U.S. troops at a military hospital in Germany has not died down. It’s easy to see why. Obama’s decision and the subsequent flap raise questions about his judgment, his honesty, and arguably the extent of his commitment to our wounded troops. In this lengthy post, I present my understanding of the campaign’s evolving explanations for Obama’s decision and, at the end, attempt to infer from the chronology what Obama’s real reason likely was.

At the outset, it should be noted that (as far as I can tell, though I may be wrong) Obama provided no explanation for his abrupt cancellation to officials at the military base. The military spokesperson who announced that Obama would not be visiting, stated: “Barack Obama will not be coming to us; I don’t know why.”

Common courtesy should have caused the campaign to provide an explanation for the cancellation. And beyond considerations of courtesy, political calculation would seem to dictate that, if you have a good reason for cancelling a visit, you provide it so as not to appear disrespectful. On the other hand, if you just don’t feel like it’s in your interest to come, you probably don’t explain.

The press, though, needed an explanation and, early on, campaign aide Robert Gibbs provided one. According to Gibbs, Obama decided out of respect for the hospitalized servicemen and women at Landstuhl that it would be inappropriate to visit troops at a U.S. military facility as part of a trip funded by the campaign. (ABC News, Jake Tapper’s blog, 7/24) Gibbs also claimed that the Pentagon had advised the campaign that the visit would be perceived as campaigning. (Fox News, 7/25) Along the same lines, Retired Air Force General Scott Gration, another Obama adviser, said that the campaign had decided not to make the visit after the Pentagon said the visit would be viewed as a campaign event. (USA Today, “On Politics” blog, 7/24)

This explanation, without more, makes little sense. Everything Obama did on his trip, including his visit to troops at a medical facility in Baghdad was viewed in part as a campaign event. Accordingly, top strategist David Axelrod offered a different story, claiming that the Pentagon told the campaign that Obama should not make the visit. (Chicago Sun Times, “Sweet” blog, 7/25) This would represent sufficient reason to cancel, but only if Axelrod’s statement were true. And here there were problems. For example, Gibbs did not back Axelrod up. He told reporters that the Pentagon had approved the visit, that it was “unclear” that the approval had ever been revoked, but that the Pentagon said, under military regulations, the visit would be considered “campaign related.” (The Washington Post, “The Trail,” 7/25) As discussed below, the Pentagon would later confirm that it had never advised Obama not to visit. In addition, it would contradict Gibbs’ more nuanced account.

Caught between two unsatisfactory explanations – one insufficient and the other false – the campaign attempted to shift the blame to John McCain. Thus, Andrea Mitchell reported that, according to the Obama campaign, McCain foreign policy advisers with connections to the Pentagon have “had something to do with this.” (MSNBC, “Morning Joe,” 7/25)

The Obama campaign also introduced an additional wrinkle. It said that the Pentagon had prohibited Obama from bringing a campaign aide (Retired Gen. Gration) with him. Obama was welcome, though, to bring along his Senate staffers who apparently had accompanied him to the hospital in Iraq. (MSNBC, “Morning Joe,” 7/25) [note-the Senate staff apparently had gone home, as the Senate business portion of the trip had been completed] This story, corroborated by the Pentagon, is preferable to the vague “the Pentagon thinks I’m campaigning” and the concrete but untrue “the Pentagon says I shouldn’t come.” In this account, the Pentagon had no problem with Obama visiting as long as he didn’t bring a campaign aide.

But this explanation has an obvious problem: why didn’t Obama visit our wounded warriors without Gration? Andrea Mitchell reported that the Obama campaign was upset with the Pentagon for imposing this condition which it speculated might not have been applied to “others.” (MSNBC, “Morning Joe,” 7/25) While it’s not difficult to believe that Obama and his campaign objected to the Pentagon “crimping their style,” this subjective unhappiness does not seem like a plausible explanation for cancelling a visit to troops in a military hospital.

Next Obama himself got into the excuse act. In London, he reverted back to the borderline nonsensical “they’ll think it’s political” narrative. Obama stated:

I was going to be accompanied by one of my advisers, former military officer, and we got notice that he would be treated as a campaign person, and it would therefore be perceived as political, because he had endorsed my candidacy, but he wasn’t on the senate staff. That triggered, then, a concern that maybe our visit was going to be perceived as political. And the last thing that I want to do is have injured soldiers and the staff at these wonderful institutions having to sort through whether this is political or not, or get caught in the cross fire between campaigns. So, rather than go forward and potentially get caught up in what might have been considered a political controversy of some sort, what we decided was that we would not make a visit, and instead I would call some of the troops who were there. So that’s essentially the extent of the story.

Obama persisted with this line in an interview with Fox News, saying “the last thing I want to do is to in any way distract the terrific work that’s being done in terms of treating our troops by getting it fouled up with a bunch of politics.” (Fox News “Live,” 7/26)

By now the campaign had dropped its pretense that the Pentagon had prevented Obama’s visit. Thus, Gibbs told Joe Scarborough: “We never said that the Pentagon prevented us from going. What we did say was that the Pentagon considered the trip to be a campaign trip.” (MSNBC, “Morning Joe,” 7/28)

But, as noted, to the extent the Pentagon considered the visit “campaigning” it was because of the folks Obama was bringing along. So the question remained, why didn’t Obama simply visit the troops without the campaign adviser? To this, Gibbs replied: “Even him going alone would likely be characterized by some as a political event.” (New York Times, 7/29)

Thus, the Obama campaign ultimately would have us believe that Obama stiffed our wounded troops out of fear that “some” (but not the Pentagon) would say he was engaged in campaigning. But the notion that Obama would be so easily deterred defies belief. Moreover, the candidate and the campaign must have understood that it defies belief; otherwise they would have asserted this explanation right away instead of blaming the Pentagon and the McCain campaign while groping for a credible narrative.

Moreover, Obama’s story is not consistent with statements by the Pentagon. Gibbs claimed that the Pentagon did not cite its rule regarding “campaign visits” until shortly before the scheduled event. However, the Pentagon said it informed the Obama campaign several days earlier than the date cited by Gibbs that he and his Senate staff could visit the hospital, but that no press would be allowed. (LA Times “Top of the Ticket” blog, 7/25) According to the Pentagon, the press and Obama’s campaign staff would be accommodated at the passenger terminal of a nearby air base. (same source) Chief Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell added that, while the Pentagon made the ground rules of the visit clear to the campaign – no press and no campaign aides – it “didn’t make any judgment whether it was or was not campaigning.” (The Politico, 7/25) In short, Obama was merely asked to follow basic rules. As long as he did, the Pentagon would have no problem with the visit and certainly would not (and did not) declare the visit “campaigning.”

So why didn’t Obama make the scheduled visit to our wounded troops? If one believes the Pentagon, the answer is not that the Pentagon was going to label the visit campaigning. And it’s almost impossible to believe that, if the Pentagon wasn’t going to make that claim, Obama would be concerned that “others” with no particular authority might do so. Obama has no history of permitting his critics to dictate his schedule.

The more logical explanation for Obama’s decision is that he objected to one or both of the two conditions the Pentagon laid down – leaving his campaign adviser behind and/or leaving the press behind. As noted, there’s no reason why the exclusion of his campaign aide would have been a deal breaker. Obama is certainly capable of talking to troops without a campaign aide. More likely, Obama was put off by not having the press along. For the absence of the press would deprive Obama of what he seemed to crave most throughout the entire trip – media attention and, above all, great pictures. [note-according to Dan Balz of the Washington Post, there was never any question of staging a large-scale photo opportunity with Obama and the troops; as to the possibility of having a pool of reporters accompany Obama to the hospital entrance, as has been done during similar visits in the past, Balz says the campaign has provided somewhat conflicting accounts]

Other things being equal, Obama presumably would have been willing to visit our wounded troops even without the media. But other things are never equal when a candidate’s valuable time is being parceled out. For me, then, the best explanation for why Obama cancelled isn’t some high-minded desire not to appear “political.” Rather the best explanation is that he weighed the potential value of a visit against the opportunity costs (including rest time or time in the gym foregone) and concluded that the trip wasn’t worth it. And given that the Pentagon had recently informed the Obama campaign that the press could not come along, it seems plausible that this information factored into the candidate’s revised cost-benefit analysis.

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