The golf summit: More than a day on the links for Obama, Boehner

President Obama and Speaker John Boehner tee off Saturday morning for a round of golf in which both players' handicap may be the political world's outsized expectations.

Big questions hanging over the outing on the links include: Could the two political leaders inch toward a deal to cut the national debt? Will they step back from their war powers standoff over military action in Libya? And will the Speaker, an unreconstructed tobacco fan, offer the president a surreptitious cigarette on the back nine?

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So hyped is the golf summit that it has taken on the air of the famous Cold War "walk in the woods," in which U.S. arms negotiator Paul Nitze took his Soviet counterpart on an unscheduled stroll near Geneva in 1982 and came back with an unauthorized deal to cut arsenals of intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

Obama and Boehner were able to strike a last-minute deal in April to avert a government shutdown, but in the two months since then their relationship – never warm to begin with – has become as frosty as ever.

The Republican Speaker has laid down a clear line on raising the federal debt ceiling, and he has needled the president in recent weeks to become more engaged on the issue. Over the last several days Boehner has intensified criticism of the president’s handling of the Libya mission, fueling a confrontation between Congress and the White House over funding and authorization for the operation.

Predictably, both the Speaker’s office and the White House are downplaying expectations for the pairing. Asked on Thursday evening whether a debt deal would be sealed on the course, Obama’s budget director, Jacob Lew, laughed and told The Hill: “I think there will be a lot of golf on the golf course.”

Earlier this week, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters he could “say with great confidence that they will not wrap up the 18th hole and come out and say that we have a deal.”

Still, Carney said Friday he expects them to talk about “some of the very important issues” facing the country. 

“This is an opportunity that I think has value beyond the game - great value beyond the game,” he added. “And it’s the kind of thing the president believes is useful for the leaders in Washington to do more frequently - not the game itself, but to sit across each other, or to engage with each other in a non-confrontational way, to sort out the business between them and the differences between them.”

For his part, Boehner has said the outing “is about golf, and I hope it’s just about golf.” The Speaker, who is considered a much better golfer than the president, joked at an Ohio event last weekend that if he needed to give Obama strokes as part of a friendly wager, he might charge him “a trillion dollars per stroke” in spending cuts.

Completing the foursome will be Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and Vice President Biden, who Golf Digest ranks 29th, with a handicap of 6.3, in a list of Washington’s top 150 golfers. (Boehner is tied for 43rd and Obama trails in a tie for 108th.)

The White House didn’t disclose the D.C.-area location in advance for security reasons – the foursome includes the top three officials in the Constitutional line of succession, making it perhaps the most politically powerful in history.

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Obama often golfs at Andrews Air Force Base and the Army Navy Country Club in Virginia. One course they couldn’t play is Congressional Country Club, where the U.S. Open is being held this weekend. And a House GOP aide predicted they would not be at Hanes Point, the sprawling public grounds along the Potomac River that is popular with hackers and beginners (and former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty), but not with serious golfers.

Seizing the opportunity to promote his district, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) penned a letter to Obama and Boehner suggesting they play at Laurel Hill Golf Club, a municipal course in Fairfax County.

Politically, a high-profile excursion to play a rich man’s game carries a measure of risk with a 9.1% unemployment rate – both Obama and Boehner have drawn criticism for their frequent golf outings. But the timing of the “golf summit” on the weekend of the U.S. Open ensures that a segment of the electorate who went strongly for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, white males, will see Obama and Biden hitting the links for a friendly foursome with their top political adversary.

The match won’t be televised, of course, but the White House said Friday photos would be released, if not the president’s score.

For Obama, the success of the outing may depend less on the number of putts he drains than on the trust he can build with Boehner.


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