For the 12th time in 36 years, the winner of both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness has failed to win the Belmont Stakes. But another opportunity also disappeared in the homestretch for California Chrome this year. That was the possibility that for the first time ever, a triple crown-winning horse and its jockey, owners, and trainer might have made a White House Rose Garden appearance.
After the disastrous photo op the president held with the parents of deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, for whom he had traded (without the required notification to Congress) five of the nastiest Guantanamo prisoners to the Taliban (or at least temporarily to Qatar for a bit of safekeeping), the president might have welcomed the chance for some light-hearted celebration at the next Rose Garden event. The country’s sports-fan-in-chief — a job he fills more easily and more capably than commander-in-chief — might have enjoyed the opportunity to shatter the thoroughbred glass ceiling at the White House.
Having the Rangers, Kings, Heat or Spurs for a White House visit (or, in some cases, repeat visit) would be pretty routine at this point. Think, on the other hand, of the diversity celebration that would have been on display with California Chrome’s owners, a trainer named Sherman, a jockey named Espinoza, an African American president, and a dark-horse winning thoroughbred (Lipizzaners would not be so welcome).
No president has inserted himself more into popular-culture venues than Barack Obama. The president now makes a regular interview appearance on Super Bowl Sunday to the nation’s largest annual television audience, offers up his NCAA brackets to CBS broadcasters who treat them as the equivalent of messages from Delphi, shows up regularly for sporting events in the Washington area, and by his own admission watches a lot of games on TV (as well as ESPN’s Sports Center nightly). The president has joked, perhaps wistfully, of his desire to start a career at ESPN after his White house playing days are over.
No administration has been as social-media savvy. And never has an administration cared so much about participating in this new communications environment, with cabinet members and aides regularly tweeting their instant reactions and heartfelt “feelings” about this and that (e.g., “Putin invading Crimea is really not good at all” or “Donald Sterling must go, solidarity with the Clippers”). The president himself has regularly appeared on lowbrow television programs like The View and offered himself or Michelle up for interviews with women’s magazines or People. Press conferences have been rare and, until recently, easy-going affairs with journalists eager not to offend.
Operating amid a cocoon of aides who refuse to challenge him, or offer critical feedback (Valerie Jarrett would have their heads if they did, since this would reflect disloyalty), the president moves from failure to fiasco routinely. We are, after all, speaking of a man who told an exultant audience in Berlin before he even became the nominee of his party in 2008, and then again on victory night in Grant Park in Chicago in November 2008, that the moment of his victory and ascendance to office would be marked as one where the planet started healing, the oceans stopped rising, and all the other problems in the world would just begin to melt away.
It took a while, given the protective cover provided by a compliant media, and the non-stop public relations and journalist-control efforts by the White House, for recognition of the president’s consistent record of failure to set in with the American people. Now, both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton are regarded in surveys as more competent executives than Obama. The president’s approval ratings in every policy area are underwater. American prestige abroad and the respect for our international role, power, and decision-making have slipped to levels not seen since the Carter administration. Plenty of leaders of other countries were unhappy with George Bush, but they did not mock his weakness or think America’s ability to project power had been consciously downgraded.