Were Obama And Chavez All Handshakes And Smiles?

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The big controversy today raging in the old and news media was President Obama’s handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. It set off a major brou-ha-ha typical of modern politics: expressions of (what else?) outrage (the most prevalent form of 21st century politics, which is seemingly displacing perspective) from politicos and some bloggers.

A charge is made then is repeated and repeated and repeated in several media (new and old…print, cyberspace and broadcast) until it (those who make it hope) takes on a reality of its own — even if it’s not accurate. Which apparently is what happened in this instance.

But not before former House Speaker Newt Gingrich insisted no American President ever smiled with a Russian President and that Obama was akin to Jimmy Carter. The no-Presidents-ever-smiled charge turned out to be shockingly sloppy and inaccurate (just look at the photos HERE) by someone who prides himself on knowing history.

And of course what would a week be like without having former President Dick Cheney continue to solidify his image as the most partisan, divisive and unpopular Vice President since Richard Nixon’s Spiro Agnew by jumping into the fray — in Cheney’s continuing campaign to endear himself to fans of talk shows such as Sean Hannity’s. In fact, in this instance he blasted Obama for the handshake on Hannity’s show (that sure beats risking tough questions from Katie Couric or someone from a news organization other than Fox News):

Former Vice President Dick Cheney told Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity that President Obama’s handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez “was not helpful” and could lead “foes” of the U.S. to “think they’re dealing with a weak president.”

The interview will be aired in two parts, at 9 p.m. ET Monday and Tuesday night.

“I find disturbing is the extent to which he has gone to Europe, for example, and seemed to apologize profusely in Europe, and then to Mexico, and apologize there, and so forth,” Cheney told Hannity.

“And I think you have to be very careful. The world outside there, both our friends and our foes, will be quick to take advantage of a situation if they think they’re dealing with a weak president or one who is not going to stand up and aggressively defend America’s interests.”

But was that the whole story? Not quite: The Los Angeles Times’ Andrew Malcolm reports that there is another bit of video that Gingrich and Cheney don’t know about (or don’t want to mention) that shows an Obama who isn’t smiling talking to Chavez.

Critics of the new U.S. administration have begun gaining some online ground this week suggesting that a naive Obama was being too chummy with dictators in his early foreign policy initiatives with Cuba and forays abroad.

The widely displayed photo above from last week of an apparently quite pleasant conversation between Obama and Chavez with huge smiles fueled such criticism. Obama himself has dismissed such talk, calling it merely a polite encounter with the leader of a country that owns Citgo and has 1/600th the military budget of the United States.

Now, thanks to Jake Tapper’s blog entry over at ABC this afternoon, we’ve got fresh Venezuelan news videotape from the same Americas summit through a door showing the two leaders conversing through a female interpreter.

No smiles in this exchange. In fact, Obama at first appears eager to walk away and is held back by Chavez. The American president then dominates the ongoing discussion and is seen gesturing with his right hand and pointing his finger several times at Chavez’s chest.

Go to the link to see the video.

How has Obama handled this? As noted here before, polls show him with support holding relatively firm with a supporting coalition of Democrats, independent voters and non talk show political culture Republicans, even as his negatives among rock-ribbed GOPers rise. And Greg Sargent has noted a new development in Obama’s response — one that doesn’t bode well for the GOP:

An interesting, if subtle, shift in Obama’s tone: He’s taken to openly mocking GOP criticism of his willingness to diplomatically engage hostile foreign leaders.

Mockery is sort of like comedy: The person delivering it needs to feel he has an audience who shares the assumptions or the mockery/comedy can bomb with the audience.

Apparently Obama & Co feel that the bulk of Americans aren’t going to buy the line that his handshake means Chavez will be run the country and their lives by dictating American foreign policy, determining the course of U. S. domestic policies, or hosting American Idol. Obama told reporters:

You take a country like Venezuela — I have great differences with Hugo Chavez on matters of economic policy and matters of foreign policy. His rhetoric directed at the United States has been inflammatory. There have been instances in which we’ve seen Venezuela interfere with some of the — some of the countries that surround Venezuela in ways that I think are a source of concern.

Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States’. They own Citgo. It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States. I don’t think anybody can find any evidence that that would do so. Even within this imaginative crowd, I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela.

…So if the question, Dan, is, how does this play politically, I don’t know. One of the benefits of my campaign and how I’ve been trying to operate as President is I don’t worry about the politics — I try to figure out what’s right in terms of American interests, and on this one I think I’m right.

Mockery or not, perhaps it doesn’t sound as if Obama has had enough caffeine. But perhaps most Americans are tired of overcaffeinated rage-filled responses.

Prediction: The controversy was fun for the GOP’s talk radio political culture base but polls will likely show the vast majority of Americans won’t be upset at Obama.

Which raises a serious, ongoing problem for the GOP: Did you ever hear the story about the boy who cried “Wolf”?