By Amie Parnes - 08/26/14 06:00 AM EDT
The White House is bristling at suggestions President Obama is disconnected, checked out or out of touch.
White House allies maintain that the storyline of a checked-out president is a myth drummed up by the news media during the summer doldrums.
Obama has been criticized as out of touch by critics and supporters, with the subject discussed at length by the news media.
The criticism has been underlined by Obama’s decision to repeatedly golf over his two-week vacation, including minutes after giving a statement about the execution of journalist James Foley.
Some Democrats say the issue goes much farther than Obama’s love of the links, however.
They argue Obama isn’t doing enough to get his message out, to help Democrats on the campaign trail or to move his agenda. And they worry the depiction of Obama as checked out is one the White House needs to do a stronger job of battling.
If the administration fails to take it on, some Democrats fear it could hurt them in this fall’s midterm elections.
“It just doesn’t seem like he can move the ball forward, and sometimes it seems like he doesn’t want to,” said one Democrat close to the White House. “He just doesn’t seem like he’s delivering on much of the stuff he campaigned on, and that includes bringing both sides together.”
Even the former official who said talk of Obama as tuned out is a bunch of B.S. acknowledged there are some things the White House could improve upon in terms of its messaging.
“I think they could probably do a better job telling a broader narrative and the telling of a story,” the former official said. “This is a data-driven White House. The president’s campaigns were data-driven. They need to put more poetry into the prose.”
At the White House briefing on Monday, press secretary Josh Earnest defended Obama’s decision to play golf minutes after he delivered a somber statement on Foley’s execution.
“There is no questioning the fact that this president was focused and attentive to his responsibilities as the commander in chief, even while trying to enjoy some downtime with his family,” Earnest said.
The White House press secretary said critics were looking at it “through a political lens.”
“It’s okay for other people to be focused on those things,” he surmised. “We’re just not.”
Obama’s golf game is getting the wrong kind of attention from the national media, with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd comparing him unfavorably to former President Lyndon Johnson.
“The extraordinary candidate turns out to be the most ordinary of men, frittering away precious time on the links,” she wrote in a recent column. “Unlike [Lyndon Johnson] who devoured problems as though he were being chased by demons, Obama’s main galvanizing impulse was to get himself elected. … Almost everything else — from an all-out push on gun control after the Newtown massacre to going to see firsthand the Hispanic children thronging at the border to using his special status to defuse racial tensions in Ferguson — just seems like too much trouble.”
Few expect Obama to change, despite the criticism.
“There are things he can do, but I don’t believe he’s going to do it,” said one Democratic strategist, who argued the White House’s attitude on everything from the optics of golf to its uneasiness about hobnobbing with lawmakers “comes from the top.”
Obama recently said he’s “not interested in photo ops,” but Democrats say sometimes they’re helpful in telegraphing a message that resonates with the general public.
“An important thing for politicians to remember is that it’s not just doing things but showing people that you’re doing things that they want you to do,” said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist. “The president seems to be against political theater philosophically, but sometimes that’s the best way to communicate with people.
“The president will be helped if he treated his last two years of his administration the same way he treated campaigning for his election. … It keeps people behind you,” Simmons added.
Other Democrats say, while Obama could still work to make sure the Senate remains in the hands of Democrats, and he could better articulate a foreign policy strategy, they don’t expect much to change.
“The die has been cast,” one Democratic strategist said. “He set the bar so high to start his political life, but the process has proven to be much harder.”