Obama's Casket Appearance is Savvy, Risky

By Steve Bryant
|  Friday, Oct 30, 2009  |  Updated 8:11 PM PDT
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The Obamas' Foreign Trips in Photos

AFP/Getty Images

US President Barack Obama salutes during the dignified transfer of Sergeant Dale R. Griffin of Terre Haute, Indiana, at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware. Obama traveled to the base to meet the plane carrying the bodies of 18 US personnel killed in Afghanistan on October 26.

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Obama Views Caskets at Dover

The president looks on as 18 soldiers come home.
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Well here's something you haven't seen in, oh, about 18 years.

Performing a ritual unobserved since at least 1991, back when the Pentagon imposed a ban on photos of returning war dead, President Obama flew to Dover Air Force Base this morning and saluted the flag-draped caskets of 18 soldiers and DEA agents recently killed in Afghanistan.

The unannounced visit comes as Obama weighs the administration's strategy in Afghanistan.

By appearing with the caskets, Obama is associating himself -- in a very direct and visual manner -- with the war's consequences.

It's a symbolic move from an administration that's expert in media manipulation (why do you think the Associated Press was invited?).

As if to say: Take responsibility. Get out in front. Even as they accuse you of dithering on the Afghan strategy, demonstrate that you're very much aware of war's human cost. You may be cool-headed, but you're not cool to the dedication of our soldiers and their families.

In a way, Obama's appearance is a subtle upbraiding of the previous administration. Though Bush met privately with the families of the war dead, he never attached his face to the war's consequences.

Hence the huge kerfuffle over the casket images in 2004. The official line was we forbade photos to maintain family privacy, but Obama's appearance demonstrates the opposite -- previous administrations didn't want Americans to see the bad news.

But as with every political maneuver -- and Obama's appearance is a political maneuver -- there's always risk.

The risk here is that Obama's joining himself at the hip to an unpopular war that looks like it's worsening.

Of course, he's already inextricably involved, by the virtue and responsibility of his office.

But now he's symbolically attached -- and in the eyes of a public inured in news cycle histrionics, that symbolism is even more powerful.

Good luck with that. Seriously.

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