The question of Favreau himself (well discussed at the above linked blogs) may be getting most of the attention but that is not where the political issues lie. The political question remains: what will Obama do with this challenge to his authority? Does he have the political acumen and self-assurance to make a well-timed example of someone who has been important to the campaign?
The stance Obama takes towards Favreau will have repercussions. To say "Sorry, this behavior does not measure up to this administration's standards, can't have this around," would clearly communicate some serious expectations for executive staff performance and workplace environment. To fail to do so will damage the administration.
The reluctance to act upon the irreducible fact of this photo is paradigmatic of Obama's political behavior. He is loath to spend political capital to do the right thing if that thing involves an implicit (let alone explicit) criticism of himself. This is one of the reasons the Rev. Wright situation dragged on as long as it did. The desire to not be wrong overshadows the desire to do what is right, particularly if there is political advantage (real or imagined) to be wrung from the wrong. I compare this political tendency - wait out bad news and see if it will resolve itself - to the behavior of banks that have reaped a windfall from the Hanky Panky. They have capital but will not put it at any risk even when the long term danger for failing to do so dwarfs any immediate penalty. The Village snickers at Hillary's degradation, shills like Campbell Brown want HRC to act out their own private revenge fantasies instead of behave like a public figure of stature, and the public is distracted by the collapsing economy. It must be tempting to see if this situation can be toughed out.
What should be an opportunity to set a number of political expectations is being allowed to slide down the memory hole to defend the imagined hoard of capital.
But this isn't a campaign and we are talking serious, high-stakes politics. Hillary Rodham Clinton is not an electoral adversary, nor is she just another senator. By virtue of her appointment as Secretary of State, she is the representative of the United States to the world. She embodies American policy and reliability to other sovereign nations. To allow this image of her being treated with disrespect by a close associate of the president, someone who appears to be on track as a member of the administration, says two things to the nations and diplomats she will engage:
- Go ahead, piss on her. We do.
- We don't respect you enough to send someone we respect to treat with you.
Had this photo come out during the campaign, it could have been kept an individual matter, dimissed (however disingenuously) as the unfortunate side effect of a highly competitive contest. But now Hillary has been named Secretary of State and the revelation of the contempt under these circumstances carries a different meaning. This image is no longer about her. This is not a situation of her making. It is an act of denegration towards her. She cannot respond to it politically because, while it is a personal insult, it is not her political predicament.
It is about defending the dignity and authority of a cabinet officer, which is identical with defending the dignity and authority of the administration as such. It is about Obama's ability to maintain order and enforce discipline. In this case, the president is responsible for defending the nation, as represented by a member of his cabinet, from violation and degredation. That the acts were perfomed on a cardboard cutout should increase awareness of the symbolic import of an assault upon a representation of the country. People have mentioned (and even Photoshopped in) faces of other women, which misses the point. The correct reshuffling of that image would be to have foreign nationals in the place of the staffers. What is done to the Secretary of State is done to the nation.
As I mentioned above, it is not clear when the picture was taken but that is irrelevant. The repercussions of this demonstration of disrespect are happening now.
The dignity, efficacy and authority of the office is at stake.