The cliché: It's that time of year again -- time for a president to go on vacation, the opposition to criticize him for it, and the media to roll out a peculiar word: optics. When used in the political sense, optics means a vision of how one is perceived by the electorate. On the topic of President Obama's trip to Martha's Vineyard, Michael Muskal at the Los Angeles Times says "Still, there is the question of political optics, which has annoyed even some liberal critics." "Others say the optics aren’t good if the president is traipsing around a place with yachts and multi-million dollar homes," says Jena McGregor of The Washington Post. "Going to Martha's Vineyard, he might have a problem in the optics, the playground of celebrities, being in a rich person's home," says The Boston Globe."
Where it's from: Ben Zimmer uncovers the origins of the word in the political sphere in his "On Language" column at The New York Times Magazine.
On May 31, 1978, The Wall Street Journal quoted Jimmy Carter's special counselor on inflation, Robert Strauss, as saying that business leaders who went along with Carter's anti-inflation measures might be invited to the White House as a token of appreciation. "It would be a nice optical step," Strauss said. The Journal was not impressed by the idea: the following day, an editorial rebuffed Strauss's overtures with the line "Optics will not cure inflation."
Since then, Zimmer notes, the phrase has received occasional use in the U.S. but really caught on in Canada. Indeed a Lexs Nexis search for the phrase "policial optics" almost exclusively returns Canadian publications. But while American media typically refer to a politician's "political optics" only sporadically, it tends to reach cliche-worthy proportions at a fairly predictable time: August. Indeed, scanning Google News in the year 2010, here and there one can see the word applied to issues like the BP oil spill. But once again it also gets hits from a variety of publications in the familiar month of August. Why? The Obamas are headed on vacation. "This may be bad optics and convey the impression that the president and the first lady are insensitive to the average person's concerns," says U.S. News and World Report. in August 2010. "In politics and pop culture, optics are all. And Michelle’s optics sent a message that likely made some in the White House and the Democratic Party wince," Maureen Dowd writes of the first lady's August 2010 trip to Europe. Zimmer notes it also got big play when Obama went to Hawaii for Christmas 2009, and again when the Republican National Committee held its winter meeting there a month later.
Why's it catching on? The word's presence in practically every report on the Obamas' vacation this week makes one question why "optics" are such a concern at this moment. Well, most immediately, it's because this particular presidential vacation comes at a time of great anxiety among the electorate, and reporters are particularly attuned to issues of "optics" only when a president is displaying a poor sense of them. People often criticize a president for going on vacation in times of crisis -- Bush on the ranch during Katrina comes to mind -- and they aren't cutting Obama any slack this time around.
Why else? But, as Zimmer notes, politicians and journalists are always at least somewhat concerned with a politican's public perception. So why "optics"? Zimmer has a theory: "[O]ptics puts a new spin on things, giving a scientific-sounding gloss to P.R. and image-making," he writes. Why do writers always want to sound more "scientific" on the occasion of a presidential vacation? Well, liberals have criticized the critics for begin petty when they bring up something like presidential vacation (as Greg Sargent put it in The Washington Post, "dumbest fake outrage ever"). In short, journalists want to turn what they themselves may think sounds like an unnewsworthy criticism into something a bit more glossy, a bit more election-y. After all, everyone struggles to find things to write about or criticize in the slow news days that are late August. Even the president's away on vacation!