Democrats worried about this week's off-year elections on Tuesday might have reason to go into full-fledged panic after Thursday.
The "spin" over the exact reasons why Republicans won governors' races in New Jersey and Virginia can go on for quite some time. Democrats can claim that these were about local concerns. Republicans can say that it was the beginning of voters rejecting President Obama and the Democrats "big-government" agenda -- especially the push to reform health care.
There's some rhetorical points to be made on both sides.
Yesterday, however, stark reality of a very different sort intruded: News broke out of the shooting at the Fort Hood Army post in Texas. Soon enough, the full impact of the horror became evident: 13 dead, another 30 injured. The full details and investigation of the shooting -- evidently by a base Army officer -- will become clear in the days ahead.
It's President Obama's reaction to it that is disturbing. Networks reported that the White House had been notified of the early afternoon shooting. By late afternoon, word went out that the president would speak about the incident prior to a previously scheduled appearance. At about 5 PM, cable stations went to the president. But, instead of what might have been expected -- a somber chief executive offering reassuring words and expressions of sympathy and compassion -- viewers saw a wildly disconnected and, inappropriately "light" president making introductory remarks. At a Tribal Nations Conference hosted by the Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian affairs, the president thanked various staffers and offered a "shout-out" to "Dr. Joe Medicine Crow -- that Congressional Medal of Honor winner." The president eventually spoke about the shooting -- in measured and appropriate terms, but how could anyone have advised him to begin in this manner?
Anyone at home aware of the major news story of the previous hours -- and that meant everyone watching given that this appearance by the president would not normally have been covered by the networks -- had to have been stunned. An incident like this requires a scrapping of the early "light" rhetoric. The president should just come out and apologize for the tone of his remarks, but then explain what has happened, express sympathy for those slain -- and appeal for calm and patience until all the facts are in. That's the least that should occur.
Indeed, an argument could be made that Obama should have canceled the Indian event, out of respect for people having been murdered at an Army post a few hours before. That would have prevented any sort of jarring emotional switch at the event.
Did the president's scheduling/communications/political team not realize what sort of image they were presenting to the country at this moment? The disconnect between what Americans at home knew had been going on -- and the initial words coming out of their president's mouth was jolting, if not emotionally disturbing.
It must have been horrifying for many politically aware Democrats, still reeling from the election two days before. The New Jersey gubernatorial vote had already demonstrated that the president and his political team couldn't produce a winning outcome in a state very friendly to Democrats (and where the president won by 15 points one year ago). And now this? Congressional Democrats must wonder if a White House that has burdened them with a too-heavy policy agenda over the last year has a strong enough political operation to help push that agenda through.
If the president's communications apparatus can't inform -- and protect -- their boss during tense moments when the country needs to see a focused commander-in-chief and a compassionate head of state, it has disastrous consequences for that president's party and supporters.
All the president's men (and women) fell down on the job Thursday. And Democrats across the country have real reason to panic.