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Should Obama be playing golf during crisis?

March 25, 2011

It should come as little surprise that President Barack Obama's golf passion has come under increasing fire as so many world crises around him have unfolded.

Photos of Obama on the links have been easy fodder for the president's critics in the quieter times of his administration (not that he's had many of those); and now with everywhere from Libya to Japan in states of disarray, it seems the only palatable images of a president are the ones of him deep in thought at his desk, not crouching over an 8-foot putt.

John Dickerson argues otherwise in a thoughtful essay on, acknowledging that while the President's golf habit is an inevitable target, it's actually irrelevant when judging his ability to lead.


Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

"Golf jokes are not only intellectually lazy, but like teleprompter jokes, they encourage the audience to be lazy, too," Dickerson writes. "No one has to bother thinking about what a president actually does.

"(Newt) 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."

Dickerson hopes the President and his advisers resist the urge to listen, if only because golf can be a necessary diversion when the tasks before a president risk overwhelming him.

"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."

As Dickerson and others have noted, this is hardly a new balancing act for a Commander-in-Chief. When George W. Bush revealed he was giving up golf as a gesture of sacrifice toward the troops in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was lauded in some corners for maintaining proper perspective. Others, including Golf World's Bill Fields, said it was a misplaced gesture.

"I couldn't care less whether a President chops wood or plays Chopin in his free time. If he happens to enjoy golf, hail to the chief for that, multiple mulligans and all (Gerald Ford seems to have been the presidential exception in not utilizing breakfast balls). I want a president to have his eye on the ball and keep his head down when he is in the Oval Office," Fields wrote in 2008. "Whether George W. Bush played golf or not throughout his presidency while his war raged--CBS News says his last round was nearly two months after the round he cited, by the way--doesn't matter. Golf is not the problem."

-- Sam Weinman