With a month to go between now and the Pennsylvania primary, Barack Obama has quit the scene for a brief respite on the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands - who've already held their primary, in case you were wondering if there was a campaign angle to the stop. It's left the media questioning whether covering the candidate while on vacation is above board or not (and it's left me wondering if he's decamped from the tanzanite-sellers of Charlotte Amalie to visit Magens Bay, which is truly one of the most beautiful places in the world).
For the most part, coverage has been spotty. The AP has covered news of the vacation, and CNN told the Politico that they have "a producer in the area to cover any news that may arise." Fox gets the credit for breaking the story on his vacation destination, but the real newsmaker is young Sammy DiStefano, a six year old girl who posed with Obama in a picture. Unlike other recent instances of candidates posing with young girls in far-flung locales, no sniper fire was reported.
The media may be mulling the rightness or wrongness of intruding on a vacationing presidential candidate, but the larger question is whether or not Obama's decision to get away from it all might have a strategic side to it. Prior to his trip, Obama had a week in which he was the main focus of the news cycle. The Project for Excellence in Journalism captured his week thusly:
Obama utterly dominated the media narrative. He was a significant or dominant figure in 72% of last week's campaign coverage. That was more than twice as many stories as Hillary Clinton, at 30%. Not only was it Obama's highest coverage level in 2008, it was Clinton's lowest since mid-January, when both parties still had multi-candidate presidential fields. And that was despite last week's much-anticipated National Archives release of thousands of pages of records of Clinton's activities as First Lady.
Normally, it's a good thing for a Presidential candidate to grab that sort of share of attention. But not when you're doing damage control, and even Obama's positive coverage - garnered from his speech in Philly - came on the flip-side of the Jeremiah Wright coin. So even at his best, he was still amplifying the worst. From PEJ:
To what extent did Obama get in front of the Wright controversy? To some degree, Obama was able to move Wright off center stage by injecting himself into the matter. For instance, Wright was a lead newsmaker in 7% of the campaign stories last week, far fewer than Obama.
But the two men were inextricably linked. More than a third (37%) of the week's campaign stories focused on the Obama/Wright relationship and its fallout. By contrast, the dilemma over what to do with Florida's and Michigan's early-voting primary contests accounted for 11% of the week's election stories.
In fact, Obama might have been better served to leave on vacation a few days early. By and large, his Philadelphia speech on race won him more plaudits than negatives, and he gained some free support in the form ostensibly neutral observers in the press who were willing to testify in his speech's favor. It's not a bad way to give you and your surrogates a rest - let some other people carry you back to positive ground. But he should have perhaps followed the old adage, "leave 'em wanting more," because not long after he gave his oration, he undercut himself a little bit when he referred to his grandmother as a "typical white person."
If anything inspired Obama to head home and back his bags, it was the mini-inflammation that gaffe caused. In the wake of the speech, it was a riveting lesson that sometimes, when you find yourself up, you can be your own worst enemy. Better then for Obama to leave the Wright discourse to others and remove any chance that he might further exacerbate the negative.
Having taken himself out of the picture, all those eyes who spent the past week watching his every move had to go somewhere. For the most part (and to the chagrin, perhaps, of anyone who had hoped for an increase in attention to Iraq), they went to Hillary Clinton. And, unfortunately for her, they've come back with a harshness. She's largely been pinned down this week on her Bosnia story, and the "Judas" remarks of James Carville. The former matter had long loomed as a potential tall-tale, but the timing of Obama's departure from the narrative coincided perfectly with the opportunity provided by the release of her records and the Washington Post's "fact-check" of the matter.
On the latter case, Carville's remarks were an accidental gift to the Obama campaign. Bill Richardson's endorsement of Obama was initially played off by the Clinton team as an endorsement that came long after its importance could be felt. Richardson himself was well on the way to proving that true, in a Sunday morning appearance in which he seemed only able to offer the hoariest of "why I support Obama" cliches. Carville's remarks only injected the importance of Richardson's endorsement right back, and, in response, Richardson has gained a measure of extra sharpness.
The extent to which these stories have ballooned owes much to the vacuum that Obama left in the media narrative by jetting off to the tropics. By this time next week, Clinton might be itching for some time away herself.