Mixed Signals: When to Send Them, How to Read Them

BY Gwen Ifill  March 18, 2011 at 12:32 PM EDT


I was sitting behind the wheel on Pennsylvania Avenue Thursday afternoon in the kind of traffic clog that those of us who live in Washington, D.C., have become accustomed to. The clamor of sirens signaled that President Obama’s motorcade was about to pass.

And until he – and about 14 other speeding vehicles carrying the presidential entourage – sped by, the rest of us would not be going anywhere.

As it happened, the president was returning from an impromptu trip to the Japanese Embassy where he had gone to sign a book of condolences set out to commemorate the victims of a massive earthquake, tsunami and burgeoning nuclear disaster.

The point of that visit, and of the president’s appearance later in the day in a sunny Rose Garden, was to clear up a few mixed signals.

Just one day earlier, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Greg Jaczko caught Japan and everyone else by surprise by announcing that he was advising U.S. citizens to stay at least 50 miles away from the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactors. Japanese government officials had imposed only a 20-mile exclusion zone.

“This decision was based upon a careful scientific evaluation and the guidelines that we would use to keep our citizens safe here in the United States, or anywhere in the world,” the president said.

Did we not trust Japan? Did U.S. nuclear experts think the situation to be more dire than we had been led to believe?

The president did not exactly confirm or deny that this was the case. But he did do what politicians love most. He sent a signal that the U.S. would stand with Japan, secure its own plants and keep Americans out of harm’s way.

It’s worth watching the president’s Rose Garden remarks again as a sort of guide to the art of signal sending. President Obama repeated (for the third time) that he was “heartbroken” about the disaster, and said (twice in the same set of remarks) that the U.S. would “carefully” and “closely monitor the situation.”

Like most signal-sending, however, few details were provided. The president, of course, is not alone in this.

When the House voted this week, largely on partisan lines, to defund NPR, Republicans likely knew that the measure was unlikely to survive a Senate vote or reach the president’s desk. But that did not stop them or their opponents from engaging in hours of full-throated debate about budget priorities and the value of “Car Talk.” Signals, you see, had to be sent.

And when the United Nations voted late Thursday to declare a Libyan no-fly zone designed to drive Moammar Gadhafi from power, the anti-Gadhafi rebels still fighting in Benghazi could be forgiven for thinking the international action might have come about a week too late. But, at the very least, the U.N. was sending a signal.

Sometimes sending a signal can be an end in itself. Certainly, if lawmakers stopped sending signals about spending and disaster and judicial nominations, those of us who work in newsrooms would have had little to talk about most weeks. Except for NCAA Tournament brackets.

But it helps to see at least some of the talk turned into action. When a presidential motorcade comes into view, we know at least, that it will pass.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.