Gingrich appeared on a number of morning talk shows comparing Obama to President Jimmy Carter for the smiling, hearty handshake he offered Chavez, one of the harshest critics of the United States, during the Summit of the Americas.
“Frankly, this does look a lot like Jimmy Carter. Carter tried weakness, and the world got tougher and tougher, because the predators, the aggressors, the anti-Americans, the dictators – when they sense weakness, they all start pushing ahead,” Gingrich said on “Fox & Friends.”
Two Republican senators, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and John Ensign of Nevada, joined in the criticism Monday, with Ensign calling Obama's greeting of Chavez "irresponsible."
Obama addressed such criticism before he left the summit in Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday, noting his “great differences” with Chavez and expressing concern for the Venezuelan president’s “inflammatory” rhetoric toward the United States and interference in neighboring Latin American countries
“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,” Obama told reporters at a news conference. “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.”
While the White House felt Obama's first foray into Latin America went well, officials seemed concerned that so-called “picture seen ‘round the world” of Obama greeting Chavez at the summit would generate such criticism back home.
The criticism is déjà vu for the Obama team. It is along the same line of what Obama’s opponents – Hillary Clinton, now secretary of State, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), said of him during the campaign, that he was too willing to talk to U.S. adversaries.
Obama defended that, too, on Sunday before returning from a four-day trip to Latin America.
“We had this debate throughout the campaign, and the whole notion was, is that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness – the American people didn't buy it,” Obama said. “And there's a good reason the American people didn't buy it — because it doesn't make sense.”
By Saturday afternoon, Chavez had gifted Obama a book critical of U.S. involvement in Latin America, the images were being replayed on television, and the White House had a new talking point: that handshakes and smiles are not enough, that actions speak louder than words.
"The smiles and handshakes and the desire of one leader to say to the president that he wants to be his friend, again is a wonderful opportunity to match actions with words," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
But Gregg told MSNBC's Morning Joe Monday that while Chavez is "not a strategic threat,” Obama’s greeting of him is “not a good way to start your presidency."
Gingrich on NBC’s Today Show that Obama’s warm greeting of Chavez was "proof that Chavez is now legitimate, is acceptable."
And Ensign called Chavez "one of the most anti-American leaders in the entire world. He is a brutal dictator and human rights violations are very, very prevalent in Venezuela. And you have to be careful.”
Gingrich first raised the issue on Friday, the night Obama and Chavez first met at a reception.
“I think it sends a terrible signal to all of Latin America, and a terrible signal about how the new administration regards dictators,” Gingrich said on Fox, also citing Obama’s willingness to talk to Iran, his handling of North Korea and overtures to the Castro government in Cuba. “I don’t think there’s any downside to talking to him. But I think being friends, taking a picture that clearly looks like they’re buddies hurts in all of Latin America.”