WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is keen on saying it doesn't put much stock in political optics.
This, of course, is itself a bit of optics intended to produce an image of a president too focused on weighty matters to bother with trivialities. It also willfully ignores the fact that the administration, like every politician at every level of government, engages in its share of stagecraft.
But it was a bit of a surprise on Monday to see the president's press secretary Josh Earnest drop the façade, if only for a moment, when he admitted the White House erred over the weekend in not sending a more senior administration official to Paris to participate in the massive solidarity march in that city.
"I think it's fair to say we should have sent someone with a higher profile," said Earnest. "There are some who suggested that the U.S. presence at the march should have been represented by somebody with a higher profile than the ambassador to France. And I guess what I'm assaying is we here at the White House agree."
Reporters naturally followed up by asking why no one more senior than the U.S. ambassador to France was sent to attend the Paris rally.
Earnest wouldn't say whether any talks actually occurred on the subject of sending someone to the march, which was held in response to the murder of journalists at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent killing of others at a Kosher supermarket. Earnest wouldn't say whether the French government had asked for anyone to come. He deferred to the Israelis on questions about why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended but Obama did not. Earnest said he didn't know what the president was doing on Sunday, and insisted that the decision about whom to send never made it to the president's desk. And he stressed, repeatedly, that security precautions made it difficult for the president to participate on a moment's notice in an open-air rally with hundreds of thousands of others.
"Had the circumstances been different, I think the president himself would have liked the opportunity to be there," said Earnest. "What is also clear is that the security requirement around a president visit are onerous."
As the briefing went on, the questions persisted. No longer did reporters want to know simply why the White House hadn't sent someone to Paris. They wanted to know why the White House now wished it had.
"We want to send a clear message, even in a symbolic context like this one, that the American people stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies in France," said Earnest.
These types of stories tend to flame out quickly, to be replaced by some newer drama or controversy. For that reason, the White House in the past has waited for such stories to blow over rather than bow to critics.
Hours before Earnest's press conference that seemed to be the mindset. Administration officials were pushing around clips of the French Ambassador to the U.S., Gerard Araud, saying there were no hard feelings between the two countries over the absence of a top official at the march. No one but the pundits cared, was the implication.
Conservative commentators, however, have not been the only ones howling about the president's absence from the march Sunday -- they have been joined by befuddled commentators from across the political spectrum. So it seems at some point the communications team figured it was better to get it over with than to endure another day or two of reproach.
"It is certainly a free country, and people have the opportunity to subject their elected officials to criticism and make it clear when they disagree," said Earnest. "I wouldn't quibble with their right to do so."