By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — On June 14, Sunni rebels threatened Baghdad after seizing much of Iraq — and President Obama fearlessly played a round at the Sunnylands Golf Course in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
The next day, the militants posted pictures of their mass execution of Shiite members of Iraq’s security forces — and Obama boldly teed off again, at Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s Rancho Mirage estate.
These split-screen scenes were reminiscent of the weekend in March when Russia was about to annex Crimea. Obama played golf both Saturday and Sunday at Key Largo, Fla.’s Ocean Reef resort with former NBA star Alonzo Mourning and former NFL player Ahmad Rashad.
It’s enough to make one wish the president would take up a different pastime — say, stamp collecting.
Yes, a president needs down time. And, yes, he can run the country whether he’s in a sand trap or the Situation Room. But Obama’s golf habit needlessly hands his critics a gimme.
Former vice president Dick Cheney, writing in the Wall Street Journal with his daughter Liz, complained: “Terrorists take control of more territory and resources than ever before in history, and he goes golfing.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers gave a TV interview asking Obama to “please come back from the golf course” and find an Iraq solution.
Is golf really so important that Obama is willing to handicap his political standing? Evidently so. On Tuesday evening, Obama hosted Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Ernie Els and other pro golfers in the East Room of the White House at a reception for the 2013 Presidents Cup players. “Last year was the second time I’ve been honorary chairman of the Presidents Cup. The United States won both times. I’m just saying,” Obama joked.
I was one of the many who had fun with George W. Bush’s classic tee shot in 2002: “I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive.” But as The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz noted, Bush hung up his spikes after the Iraq invasion. (He busied himself with other leisure pursuits, such as clearing brush.) CBS News’ Mark Knoller, the unofficial statistician of presidential activities, reports that Bush played golf only 24 times while in the White House; Obama is up to 177 and now has a round-a-week habit.
The image problem isn’t from leisure activity per se but the type of leisure activity. A majority of Americans now believes that Obama doesn’t understand their problems, and images of him playing golf — perceived, fairly or not, as a rich man’s game — confirms this out-of-touch reputation.
This is similar to the problem that dogged Mitt Romney, and now Hillary Clinton. The Post’s Philip Rucker this week noted that influential Democrats are concerned that her “rarefied, cloistered lifestyle could jeopardize the Democratic Party’s historic edge with the middle class.” Images of Obama lining up his putt undermine his attempts to play the populist, which he has done this year on unemployment insurance, the minimum wage and income-inequality.
The game has driven another wedge between the president and White House reporters who, during their turns on pool duty, chronicle with envy his weekly outings with friends and aides.
“Beautiful day for hitting the links,” the Washington Examiner’s Susan Crabtree wrote from Fort Belvoir. “Unfortunately pool is headed to the base rec center for the duration.”
“Looked like a nice place to play golf,” wrote the Houston Chronicle’s Kevin Diaz from the “exclusive” Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va., “at least from the maintenance shed where pool spent the day.”
Obama has replaced basketball with golf as his “go-to sport,” in part to avoid injury, Politico reports. At a White House event on sports concussions last month, the president spoke of the therapeutic benefits of his time on the links: “When I need to relax and clear my head, I turn to sports, whether it’s a pick-up basketball game … or more sedate pastimes like golf, or watching ‘SportsCenter.’”
Democrats probably wish, for the sake of appearance, that Obama would devote more time to ESPN and less to golf. But if the optics of manicured greens and country clubs worry Democrats, they should consider themselves lucky he didn’t take up polo.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.