Opinion: Columnists

Barack Obama golfs while the Middle East burns

By |
Politics,Opinion,Golf,Byron York,Columnists,Barack Obama,George W. Bush,Magazine

Last weekend Barack Obama played his 175th and 176th rounds of golf as president. He played first at Sunnylands, the famously private course on the Rancho Mirage, California estate of the late billionaire Walter Annenberg. Obama next played at Porcupine Creek, the equally private course on the nearby estate of the very-much-alive tech billionaire Larry Ellison.

The White House said Obama received regular briefings on the worsening crisis in Iraq during his golf weekend. "The president directed [National Security Adviser Susan Rice] to continue to keep him apprised of the latest developments," said spokesman Josh Earnest, "as his national security team continues to meet through the weekend to review potential options."

Earnest's report was the latest in a long tradition of presidents trying to assure the public they're on top of things even as they hit the links for a leisurely round, sometimes in fabulously luxurious settings. Presidential golf can be a sensitive subject, especially if there is an international crisis at hand. Nevertheless, Obama continues to play, even as fears grow that events in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere have brought the world to a very dangerous point.

Some critics believe Obama's high-visibility leisure sends a negative signal to foreign leaders who already worry that the president is not fully engaged or simply not up to the job.

"He has got to know our allies are sitting there saying, 'Has this guy got the chops? Is he strong?'" says former top George W. Bush aide Karl Rove, just returned from a trip to Europe. "And for him to hold a news conference saying he's thinking about what to do in Iraq and then head off for a weekend of fundraisers and golf - does he think this escapes international view?"

Golf bedeviled Bush after 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of the damage was self-inflicted, as when, in August 2002, Bush chose the first tee as the setting for a presidential statement on a deadly bombing in Israel.

"I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killings," Bush, club in hand, told reporters. "Thank you. Now, watch this drive."

The scene was witheringly ridiculed in Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. The press was filled with references to "golf cart diplomacy." The president seemed to be lining up putts while the world burned.

Without announcing it, Bush stopped playing golf in the summer of 2003. He made the decision, he explained in a later interview with Politico and Yahoo News, after a particularly devastating bombing in Iraq, which he learned about while on the course.

"I don't want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf," Bush said. "I feel I owe it to the families to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal."

In all, Bush played 24 rounds during his time in the White House. Obama has played more than seven times that many – so far.

Of course, Obama did not start the war in iraq, or in Afghanistan, although he seriously escalated the latter, and nearly 1,700 American troops have died in Afghanistan since he entered the White House. "Obama does not style himself as a 'war president,' and many Americans seem content with that," noted the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt in 2010. "Unlike his predecessor, Obama is not chided for playing golf in his off hours."

But there is still the signal-sending. "I understand presidents need to relax and get away, but symbolism matters," says another former Bush aide, Pete Wehner. "It matters because it speaks to something deeper. You send signals to the country about your priorities. I would prefer that he not do it because he is commander in chief and things are unraveling."

Obama has never made the golf missteps Bush did, in part because he would never allow the public a good look at him playing what some still consider a frivolous, rich guy's sport. "Like JFK, he had downplayed his love of golf during the [2008] campaign for political reasons," wrote sympathetic journalist Jonathan Alter in The Promise, a book about Obama's first year in office. "Obama barred cameras from the course when he played. Wrong Image."

Now, perhaps more than ever, it's still the wrong Image. Will the president keep playing while his – and the world's – problems mount?

View article comments Leave a comment

More from washingtonexaminer.com