What the Bergdahl Mess Says About Obama’s Messed-Up Messaging

Bringing Bergdahl home was the right thing to do. But the way team Obama handled it highlights a major political blind spot that’s been with them all along.

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President Barack Obama makes a statement about the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl as his parents, Jani and Bob Bergdahl, listen on May 31, 2014, in the White House Rose Garden.

J.H. Owen-Pool/Getty Images

Let me be clear. I agree with President Barack Obama’s statement on Tuesday that “regardless of circumstances ... we still get an American prisoner back”—emphasizing that the principle of leaving no man behind applies, “Period, full stop.”

And I agree with the Wall Street Journal that, any other issues aside, making the deal to get Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl back is the commander in chief’s call to make, not Congress’ call.

Even if the Army later decides that Bergdahl deserted, I think Obama did the right thing.

But where Obama—and team Obama—fell down on the job in this situation was in their initial inability to clearly explain why the president did what he did and, apparently, to anticipate that his actions, even if they made sense, wouldn’t be universally applauded. It’s a message problem that has dogged Obama since day one.

It’s true, as The Root’s Peniel Joseph writes, that most of the president’s GOP critics will oppose whatever he does simply because it’s him. They're ripping him now, but it wasn't too long ago that they were urging Obama to bring Bergdahl home.

But it’s not just Republicans who are up in arms this time. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee—who served as co-chair of Obama’s inaugural committee in 2009—is sour on the president’s handling of the deal. And former members of Bergdahl’s unit have expressed their displeasure—if not with bringing him home, then at least with the way it was handled: with a Rose Garden ceremony for Bergdahl’s folks and National Security Adviser Susan Rice going on the Sunday talk shows and saying that Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction.”

This, despite reports—going back years—that Bergdahl walked away from his unit.

The point isn’t to prejudge Bergdahl. Far be it from me—or anyone else who’s never been in combat—to second-guess him.

But it’s hard to understand why the White House tried to turn this into a photo op or victory lap. They could have brought Bergdahl home, announced it without bringing his parents to the White House and shelved Rice, who’s already a target for Republican barbs after her Sunday-show appearances in the aftermath of Benghazi. Instead, they made it easy for Obama's opponents.

My only guess here is that it’s the same kind of inability to anticipate pushback that resulted in Obama’s iffy response to the Veterans Affairs controversy last month, when the president went before cameras three weeks too late and essentially said, “We’re looking into it.” It was an underwhelming response that had congressional allies like Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) on the House floor exclaiming, “Mr. President, we need urgency!” and led, a week later, to Obama having to jettison embattled VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.