Obama returns to Washington on Sunday faced with having to repair
some of the dings to his reputation after he came under fierce
criticism for playing golf amid smoldering crises involving Islamic
State militants, racial unrest in Missouri, a Chinese plane's
altercation with an American aircraft over Japan, and renewed
violence in Ukraine.
"Perception is reality, and it takes a long, sustained effort to
change perception," said Dana Perino, a former press secretary for
President George W. Bush.
Inevitably it happens with every president in the modern era. George
H.W. Bush was seen as out of touch by rocketing around the waters
off the coast of Maine in a pricey speedboat while the country faced
an economic slowdown.
George W. Bush's 2002 golf course declaration to reporters to "watch
this drive" after delivering a tough statement about terrorism led
to widespread scorn, and he ultimately gave up the game for the rest
of his term in office to avoid controversy.
Bill Clinton drew criticism too for hanging out with the wealthy
summer set on Martha's Vineyard at a time when he was trying to
connect with ordinary Americans.
"It's the kind of trouble presidents usually get themselves into,"
said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey
For Obama, his nine rounds of golf over the course of two weeks on
Martha's Vineyard, about five hours per round, demonstrated his need
to let off some steam from the white-hot political polarization of
Washington ahead of a looming partisan battle over new immigration
rules he will soon issue.
But his decision to go ahead with a round with former NBA star
Alonzo Mourning last Wednesday, minutes after delivering a heartfelt
statement about the beheading of American journalist James Foley at
the hands of Islamic State militants, has been front-page news.
It is further trouble for a president whose public approval rating
is hovering around 40 percent, in what is a worrisome sign for
Democrats ahead of congressional elections in November.
The criticism has come mostly from Republicans, who are complaining
about everything Obama does in this election year, but some
Democrats were also chagrined at the image of the president laughing
it up behind the wheel of his golf cart moments after his Foley
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Obama's defenders say the controversy is much ado about nothing,
that the president was able to do his job capably and never really
is on vacation. Over the course of the last two weeks, he gave four
public statements, including a news conference when he returned to
the White House for two days a week ago.
“I think this whole discussion of optics is something that
fascinates Washington. It really doesn’t fascinate the American
people," said David Plouffe, an informal Obama adviser, on ABC's
But other political experts see Obama's vacation in the context of a
struggling second-term president whose influence could be reduced
further if Republicans wrest control of the Senate in congressional
elections in November.
Would the president have been better served spending those five
hours consulting with advisers about how to confront the threat from
the Islamic State? Some of the criticism aimed his way is that he
does not have a broad strategy for confronting the militant group.
"I don't think anybody begrudges the president a break from the
action but when really serious things happen in the world I think a
lot of Americans want to see the president engaged and concerned,
not just going through the motions of it," said Merle Black, a
political scholar at Emory University in Atlanta.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Andrea
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