Barack Obama’s long walks spoiled
By: Jennifer Epstein
August 24, 2014 03:01 PM EDT
It was President Barack Obama’s “now watch this drive” moment, as he went this week from denouncing the gruesome killing of an American journalist to the golf course in the blink of an eye.
From Fox News and the New York tabloids to Maureen Dowd, critics have spent the past few days pillorying Obama for appearing out of touch and insensitive, more interested in hitting the links and hanging out with friends than in mourning James Foley or taking seriously the threat posed by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. While Obama spent Sunday, the final day of his vacation, hiking with the first lady and friends, the round he played Saturday was the 193rd of his presidency.
The criticism has continued into the weekend. Dowd’s column in Sunday’s New York Times print edition mocked the president with a fake speech, modeled after the Gettysburg Address (and about 600 words longer): “Yet it is altogether fitting and proper that I should get to play as much golf as I want, despite all the lame jokes about how golf is turning into ‘a real handicap’ for my presidency and how I have to ‘stay the course’ with ISIL.” And Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus dedicated part of his Saturday morning radio speech to hitting Obama’s golf habits.
Earlier in Obama’s time in office, aides might have urged him to return to spend the rest of that day, Wednesday, at his rented vacation home in Chilmark, out of the view of reporters and the public.
But as Obama approaches the second half of his second term, he and his team less concerned about possible Republican attacks. They know that many controversies burn hot for a few hours or a few days on Twitter and cable news, but expect that most will be quickly forgotten. What matters more to them is for Obama to have a chance to unwind, regroup and be better prepared for the challenges he’ll face once his vacation is over — from ISIS to immigration to race and the militarization of local police forces.
Wednesday, Obama hit the links with former NBA star Alonzo Mourning, investor Glenn Hutchins and Cyrus Walker, a cousin of senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. And unlike most of Obama’s rounds, that outing was accompanied by an Associated Press photographer who got some shots of the foursome on a green at Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown. Photos published by the wire service show Obama laughing, fist-bumping his friends and driving a golf cart with Mourning in the passenger seat.
Including subsequent rounds on Thursday and Saturday, Obama has during his current vacation played four rounds of golf with Mourning, one of the few outsiders to break into the president’s inner circle since Obama moved into the White House.
In an interview with POLITICO earlier this year, Mourning said that the president savors his downtime, recharging as he spends a longer-than-average five or so hours making his way through 18 holes.
“You get caught up in the fact that he’s so personable you do forget that he is the most powerful man in the world,” Mourning said. “That’s what he wants when he’s around his friends. He doesn’t want to be strictly political every time that he’s around us. I think he just wants to relax and exhale.”
The White House has been unapologetic about Obama’s Foley-to-golf pivot.
Asked about the optics of the moment at a news briefing Friday on Martha’s Vineyard, principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said that domestic and international events have “absolutely captured the president’s attention while we’ve been here.”
“Just because the president is in a different location doesn’t mean he’s not doing his job,” he said. “And I don’t think anyone in this room who’s been covering this or following the president for the past few weeks could deny that the president has been deeply engaged on issues both domestic and abroad.” Obama gave five on-camera speeches during his two-week break, including a brief news conference from the White House just minutes before boarding Marine One to begin his travel to Massachusetts.
Without expressly weighing in on the president’s mindset, Schultz also offered a defense of Obama’s time on the green: “I will say that, generally, I think that sports and leisure activities are a good way for release and clearing of the mind for a lot of us.”
From Mourning and from others who have golfed with Obama and spoken to POLITICO, it’s clear that golf plays that role for Obama. And this vacation isn’t the first time Obama’s taken the risk of short-term hits to get some rest and relaxation on the links.
As POLITICO reported in June, Obama and aides considered whether he should scrap a planned golf weekend in Key Largo, Florida, amid a particularly tense week in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Ultimately, the situation stabilized and Obama went ahead with the trip, which gave him a break from a few difficult weeks dealing with the international conflict.
He spent both days of that weekend playing golf with a group that included Mourning. “I needed this,” he told Mourning and other friends who joined him for dinner one night. “I needed the golf. I needed to laugh. I needed to spend time with friends.’’