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.