Obama’s golf game tees up image debate

President Barack Obama is facing the same dilemma several of his Republican predecessors faced during times of national crisis: whether to golf.

His love of the game is clear from his willingness to play over successive weekends, even in sweltering heat.

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But he has come under criticism from Republicans — and some in the media — for playing the country-club sport while millions of gallons of oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico.

Obama has played at least seven times since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20, according to a compilation of media reports. He has reportedly golfed a total of 39 times since his inauguration, though some rounds came during vacations.

“Very seldom do people look at a president golfing with admiring eyes,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “Like [Sen.] John Kerry [D-Mass.] with windsurfing and Obama with golfing, there’s a feeling that it is an Ivy League, country-club activity.”

Obama’s golf game became a political issue this week when Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, called on the president to quit playing until oil stopped gushing into the Gulf.

A White House spokesman pointed out that the president, given the demands of an all-consuming job, deserved a little time to himself.

“I don’t think that there’s a person in this country that doesn’t think that their president ought to have a little time to clear his mind,” said Bill Burton.

Republicans used Kerry’s fondness for windsurfing to deadly political effect in 2004, when he was the Democratic presidential nominee. GOP strategists portrayed Kerry as a member of the elite and a politician who followed the prevailing political winds.

Some in the GOP have been leery of following Steele’s lead in criticizing Obama for how he spends his weekends. Sens. George LeMieux of Florida and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, two Republicans who have blasted Obama’s response to the spill, declined to take issue with his golfing during the crisis.

“He needs to be more focused on the Gulf of Mexico; it’s not just tar balls, it’s sheets of oil that have been washing ashore,” said LeMieux. “But I’ll leave the president’s personal time to him.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has likewise criticized the president’s handling of the Gulf disaster, saying he needs to have “a higher command-and-control operation.”

But Nelson said he is not concerned with how much time Obama plays golf.

Said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who frequently disagrees with Obama on policy matters: “It’s a low blow.”

Other Gulf Coast lawmakers, including Rep. Allen Boyd (D), who represents the Florida panhandle, and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), said the same.

Democrats were more outspoken about commanders in chief who golfed when Republicans controlled the White House, according to presidential historians.

GOP President Dwight Eisenhower loved golf so much that he made several trips to Augusta, Ga., site of the Masters Golf Tournament, where he had a house on the course.

“Eisenhower was criticized by Democrats who didn’t have a great deal to criticize him for as being asleep at the controls and spending too much time on the golf course,” said historian John Sayle Watterson, author of The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the Presidency.

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Eisenhower’s golf habit led to a confrontation with Congress when his staff tried to trap and remove squirrels digging up a putting green on White House grounds.

Former Sen. Richard Neuberger, an Oregon Democrat, called on Eisenhower to leave the squirrels alone and helped set up a Save the White House Squirrels Fund. Eisenhower eventually backed down.

Former President Gerald Ford, another Republican, came under attack from Democrats and the media for taking a golfing trip to California at a time when the inflation rate was rapidly rising, threatening the economy.

“He was criticized for being away at a critical time,” said Watterson.

Former President John F. Kennedy and his aides were keenly aware of the public image golf projected. They used to joke about the amount of time Eisenhower spent on the links.

After Kennedy won the White House in 1960, he initially tried to keep his golf playing from the public eye.

Obama often plays at Andrews Air Force base, where public access is restricted. When he plays at other courses, he often deploys protective foursomes ahead of and behind his golfing party so bystanders have a tough time catching a glimpse of him mid-hack.

The president also holds his scorecards back from public scrutiny, perhaps fearful that an appalling score may raise questions about his prowess in other matters.

Obama was roundly mocked on the campaign trail in 2008 when he bowled an atrocious 37 out of a possible 300 while on the stump in Pennsylvania — though he did not finish the whole game.

Tim Joyce, a columnist for RealClearSports.com, said that sports can become a metaphor for a president’s governing style.

Former President Jimmy Carter’s reputation as a micro-manager was cemented after it emerged he had sign-off authority over who used the White House tennis courts.

Carter’s near-collapse from exhaustion during a Maryland 10K race became a troubling symbol of a presidency that seemed to be running out of steam.

Joyce noted that former President George H.W. Bush spent much of his presidency fighting the public perception that he was a pampered East Coast establishment elite.

To avoid fueling his country-club reputation, Bush would play tennis games at an indoor court in the Senate Hart Office Building, away from prying eyes and cameras.

Former President George W. Bush understood the potential public-relations fallout of playing golf during a time of national crisis. Bush said it would send the “wrong signal” to continue playing golf while American soldiers were fighting and dying in Iraq, and vowed not to.

He said he decided to quit after the bombing of United Nations headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003. But liberal critics shamed him when they found video of him on the green two months after making his promise.

But Bush seemed well aware of the sport’s image during a time of crisis.

“During the BP spill, it may have been wise to avoid a couple rounds here and there,” said Brinkley.

“Every elected official must be mindful of how things that seem a part of everyday life will be looked at differently during times of crisis,” said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Ohio, who ran for president in 2008.