Having once served a president, I don’t begrudge any president a vacation. There is, in fact, no escape from this relentless job. A change of scenery does not involve a change in responsibilities, or even a release from the essence of the president’s routine. The intelligence briefings stalk him. Presidential respites are measured in hours, not days or weeks — say, a few hours on a golf course. And the public would be selfish and shortsighted to demand those downtime hours, which are necessary for humans to function.
The problem for President Obama has come in managing the symbolic aspect of his office. Playing a round at the Farm Neck Golf Club was appropriate. Giving a speech after the murder of James Foley was necessary. It is the immediate juxtaposition of beheading and golfing that should have raised questions.
Those questions would have been so obvious to any reasonably competent deputy press secretary that the incident raises further issues: Is there really no one on the White House staff with the standing to confront Obama when he is about to make a self-evident mistake? Is he surrounded by sycophancy? Or has re-election liberated Obama from all considerations of symbolism or appropriateness?
One gets the impression of a particular message being sent. The president is so aggressively indifferent to appearances that he doesn’t really seem indifferent at all. He appears to be telling the media, his political critics and the world: You can criticize me, vilify me, challenge me; but you are powerless, at least, to change my tee time. It shows resilience. Yet there is a fine line between not giving an inch and not giving a damn.
Our view of presidential character is often conditioned by the direction of events. When a president is succeeding, he might be regarded as principled. When he is failing, the same leader may be viewed as stubborn. A president who is considered flexible in success might be called slippery in failure. A leader’s virtues can become his weaknesses — or maybe they are inseparable. Our admiration becomes our indictment.
President Obama rose to prominence, in part, because of a certain aloofness and emotional distance. The contrast to his opponent in the 2008 election, John McCain, was particularly vivid during the financial collapse. McCain seemed excitable and unsteady; Obama was cool and self-contained.
In political success, Obama’s manner was reassuring. As his failures have multiplied, he seems disconnected and tone-deaf. It must be frustrating for the president to know he is actually the same leader, and tempting to display a defiant unconcern.
But this is not just a matter of image management. Obama now faces the defining crisis of his presidency — the rise of a terrorist state at the heart of the Middle East with global ambitions of violence — which suddenly demands a different set of attributes: resolution, clarity, inspiration. The traits and views that aided his political rise — an emotional and geopolitical disengagement — are not sufficient to the moment. Even some of his traditional supporters have begun to fear that the president’s golfing has become not merely a respite but a symbol of detachment.
In his public statements, Obama has carefully avoided resolving or clarifying his administration’s ultimate policy goal. He has consistently downplayed America’s incremental (but escalating) military actions. He has promised to be “relentless” toward some unspecified end. He has argued that the Islamic State has “no place in the 21st century” — as though the appeal of radical Islamism should have faded like bell bottoms and disco.
For years, Obama has reacted to events in the Middle East, and lately been at their mercy. Now he must provide some assurance that he is shaping events with a strategy that culminates in the end of the Islamic State.
As a matter of policy, this will require recognition that Iraq and Syria are one theater in a long-term struggle that does not fade when we ignore it.