Golf season has returned, and with it jokes about the president’s obsession with the game. Newt Gingrich has accused President Obama of cowering behind his putter in crisis. “It strikes me that the more difficult [the world] gets, the more the president golfs and the more the president hides,” he said.
Golf jokes are a hardy presidential perennial. Democrats made so much fun of Eisenhower’s frequent outings that Kennedy had to hide his regular golf matches for fear of catching the same grief. (Kennedy kept many things hidden.) Presidential golf jokes may be the laziest of all political humor, with the possible exception of jokes about presidential vacation time. Jokes about presidential appearance are also lazy, but they’re just cheap shots: Golf jokes are not only intellectually lazy, but like teleprompter jokes, they encourage the audience to be lazy, too. No one has to bother thinking about what a president actually does.
Why do we care about this dumb joke? Because it is politically potent. You’ll probably be hearing variations of it a lot during the 2012 campaign. More important, we should care because it exposes a larger problem in the way we view presidents and evaluate candidates. For presidents who can never escape their job, we should encourage golf playing, not mock it.
A president’s critics always go for the golf joke because it irritates people at a gut level. And the gut level is where you need to go if you want to pick up votes. To say a president is wrong on some policy issue or another is only so damaging. To suggest he is so clueless that he’s lining up his putt while the world burns is what really gets a voter outraged. If you’re a working-class voter, you may even get irritated that a guy getting paid with your taxes is playing what’s seen as a rich man’s sport.
Gingrich, apparently unconcerned about drawing attention to his own past extracurricular activities, adds a special twist: Obama is a coward. The only evidence he needs for this charge is that someone (it doesn’t have to be him, though he is happy to oblige) accuse the president of not doing everything he can on a given issue, and a few pictures of the president golfing or on vacation. And these two pieces of evidence—like “Hail to the Chief” and the presidential seal—come with the job.
Gingrich hopes that golf will become a symbol for a vast catalog of problems with Obama. Every time you see Obama golf, Gingrich wants you get enraged. If things really work out for Republicans, golf will start coming up in David Axelrod’s focus groups, and maybe Obama’s advisers will have to suggest to the president that he stop playing.
Obama should resist—and, regardless of party, we should all want him to. The presidency is a prison. Your every move is watched and tended by the Secret Service, your opponents, and the media. Even when you’re “having fun,” you do so in quotation marks. At parties or a baseball game, you’re watched to see if you’re having a good time. If you play basketball, your on-court demeanor is analyzed for clues to your leadership style. You don’t drive. You can’t keep a diary (they can be subpoenaed). You can’t smoke (the kids are watching). You can’t take a stroll through your old neighborhood. All of this distorts the mind.
The golf course is one of the few places a president can escape the pressures and physical limitations of the office. George W. Bush was smart enough to have a ranch that allowed him to get out from under the scrutiny of the press. He was inside a perimeter, so the Secret Service could back off a little. You don’t have to like golf to recognize that being able to walk in relative freedom and hang out with friends is an obvious pleasure and escape. The more tightly someone is confined, the more necessary it is to escape. One of the great problems for any president is a loss of perspective. A distraction, even for a moment, from the constant and attention-shredding duties of the day is one way to gain perspective.
So back to Gingrich’s joke: For it to have potency requires a nutty view of the presidency. First you must think the president’s most important job is to be like a castle guard—always in a specific place and constantly on watch. This may seem absurd, but this is the way we think about presidents. If the economy has not improved, the chief executive should be in the office doing something, even if it’s hitting the refresh button on his browser. And second, you have to think that what a president does in public is the most important thing he’s doing. He gets no credit for anything he does in private.
Presidents are never off the clock and never more than an arm’s length from the most sophisticated communications equipment on the planet. If presidential golf were so all-consuming that he couldn’t be interrupted by the duties of being leader of the free world, we’d have a lot more men running for office.
A president’s job is to have a vision, convey that vision to others, and make the hard calls when they come to him. It’s about making smart decisions, not how many hours a president spends making a decision. Libya is a perfect example. Obama has been engaged in the Libya decision-making process, courting allies, making sure any U.S. action had United Nations support. Lots of his critics, on the left and right, wish he’d decided not to intervene. If he’d gone that way he would have had plenty of time to golf and kept the United States out of a confused and seemingly open-ended mission. An early decision to intervene, of course, would also have freed up some alone time.
His position on Libya isn’t going to get more attractive (or clear), no matter how little golf he plays. Gingrich’s position on the matter has had its own internal confusion without any intervening rounds of golf by the former Speaker.
It’s Obama’s worldview, not his golf, that bothers Gingrich and others. How the president’s worldview affects U.S. policy is something that is shaped not just by his public statements, but in scores or hundreds of private meetings and conversations each day. Focusing on how he does or doesn’t spend a Sunday afternoon is a distraction. The president’s critics also tell us to ignore Obama’s pretty speeches and other public actions and focus on what he believes. That’s good advice we should probably stick to—even when the golf joke seems too good to resist.
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