A Sand Wedge Issue

by Jonah Shepp

Obama has come in for a lot of criticism for remaining on “vacation” in Martha’s Vineyard and proceeding with his regularly scheduled golf outings despite mounting crises in Iraq, Ukraine, and Missouri. Ezra Klein identifies what’s right and wrong about that critique:

This is politics at its dumbest. The country is not well served by a burnt-out president. If there’s a problem with presidential vacations it’s that they’re not restful enough. The way to do this right would be for the vice president to take over for a week or two — and for the president to get a call if something really goes wrong. Instead, the president takes working vacations, and the White House brags about how much work he gets done when he’s supposed to be resting.

But so long as the president is still the president when he’s on vacation, he still carries the symbolic weight of the role. He can’t go directly from leading the nation in grieving to hitting a drive. … Obama, of course, would say that this isn’t his problem. The get-caught-trying thing is Washington’s problem. The idea that politician should go around pretending to get things done even when they’re not getting anything done is exactly why the American people hate Washington, and exactly why they elected to Barack Obama to change it. And he is, in many ways, right about that. But there are days when it’s bad to get caught not trying.

First of all, let’s dispense with the notion that Obama is “on vacation”. President is a job you can do from pretty much anywhere these days, and in August, I suspect I’d rather be doing it from Martha’s Vineyard than from Washington, DC, where it’s typically a breezy 86° in the shade, not counting the hot air emanating from Capitol Hill. And that’s exactly what the president is doing: his job, from somewhere other than his usual office. It’s not like he’s really unplugging and unwinding out there on the links—and as Klein points out, he’d probably be handling this hellscape of world affairs a bit better if he actually got to do so once in a while. This criticism also strikes me as somewhat hypocritical, when the same people who accuse the president of failing to think out his strategic choices clearly and act on them decisively also insist that he operate under conditions of maximum stress.

Should he have postponed those 18 holes he put in after the Foley speech? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s how he clears his head after delivering a grim address. It might not look especially sensitive, but then, those who are making political hay out of that can always be counted on to find their hay somewhere. And after all these years, Paul Waldman figures the president is past caring about “the optics”:

Obama could try to “win the morning” and be consumed with every up and down of the news cycle. But he plainly no longer cares. Playing golf might not make him look good, but he’s probably decided that it’s an important way for him to stay sane (as the Times article says, he has “perhaps the most stressful job on the planet”), and he’s willing to tolerate some bad press.

Back when he first ran for president, Obama and his team prided themselves on their ability to see beyond the fury of that day’s news cycle, avoid the distraction of whatever was in Politico that morning, and keep their focus on their long-term goals. That was a central part of the “No Drama Obama” ethos. What’s happening now is in some ways an extension of that perspective. It may be that Obama has decided that it’s no longer possible to affect how most Americans think about him — after nearly six years in office, there’s no clever press strategy that will revive his approval ratings. The only thing that will make a difference is results.

Meanwhile, John Cassidy’s defense of what he dubs Obama’s “golf addiction” is so snobbishly golf-happy it reads more like a brief for the prosecution. I came away from it much angrier at Obama—and anyone else who makes $250k+ a year—than I was going in. Read it only if you either love golf and want to feel like you have something in common with the president, or hold deep class-based resentments against the sport and enjoy getting angry about it.