After American journalist James Foley suffered a gruesome decapitation on video last week, President Barack Obama called the event appalling, commiserated with Foley’s parents via phone, and departed for a round of golf with ex-NBA star Alonzo Mourning.
The criticism was immediate. Of course, complaints from the political right are best understood in the context that develops when one tries to imagine any act by Obama that commentators and politicians on the right would praise rather than condemn. It can’t be done.
The president’s critics are eager to embarrass him and see him fail. Consequently everything he does – including whether he takes a vacation, at all, and when and where – is going to be subject to this sort of criticism.
But others looked askance at Obama’s quick exit to the golf course, as well. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd ridiculed the president with a lame, tacky take on the Gettysburg Address entitled “The Golf Address.” Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief at the news site Vox, Twittered that golfing so soon after the Foley video was released was in “bad taste.” Others called it “tone deaf.”
And, frankly, I cringed a bit, as well. Look at what’s going on in the world besides Foley’s execution and the threat to his fellow journalist Steven Sotloff: American airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State; Putin threatening eastern Ukraine; the persistent conflict between Israel and Hamas; the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. We could go on.
Should the president be vacationing, at all, in times like these?
Of course, he should. And the nation would be healthier if we could get over worrying about whether this president – or any president – is goofing off on the job.
Surely, the presidency is the ultimate 24/7 job. I’m reluctant to say that any job is unique, but even doctors find other doctors to take their call, leaving them free to be entirely off duty, to disappear on a sailing voyage or trek through the Australian Outback. But the president cannot turn his duties over to the vice president and vanish for a few days.
Furthermore, President Obama is accompanied in Martha’s Vineyard by a large entourage of advisers and other administrative functionaries. Obama may take his girls out for ice cream and he may play more than a few rounds of golf, but the ongoing responsibilities and stresses of his office are always close at hand.
So let’s agree that the president has a job that’s much more stressful, demanding, and all-consuming than most of us can imagine and that when he is “on vacation” he’s never really off duty.
Couple all of this with the fact that from the beginning presidents have been criticized for being away from the White House. And when it comes to taking time off, this president is solidly in the middle of the pack, having taken more “vacation days” than some presidents, but fewer than many others.
Playing golf immediately after speaking by phone with Foley’s parents may not have been the best optical decision. But complaining about a president taking “time off” is petty and trivial.
And how does this small-minded carping look to the architects of the so-called Islamic State?
It doesn’t take much imagination to believe that some version of a war with this fanatical threat is close to inevitable. People who crucify and decapitate innocent people can’t be allowed to create a burgeoning caliphate, and clearly we’re only one semi-successful terrorist act away from a hot war.
But worrying about whether or how much the president plays golf is a thoroughly misplaced preoccupation that broadcasts irresolution. Our interests are better served by the exhibition of a determined, united front. That’s going to be hard to achieve if we spend too much time and energy complaining about a president who does what presidents have always done, that is, looking for ways to recuperate from the rigors of the most stressful job on earth.
In Obama’s case, this involves playing golf. The rest of us should give him a break.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at [email protected]