The reappearance of Barack Obama in Washington DC during his August vacation raised expectations in the Beltway that the White House had an initiative up its sleeve, The Hill reports today. Was it a key foreign-leader summit on an important diplomatic issue? An agreement on tax reform, or perhaps immigration? As it turned out, Obama didn’t do much else than show up and then go back to Martha’s Vineyard, which has observers wondering why he spent $1.1 million for the round trip:

President Obama went back to his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard Tuesday evening following less than 48 hours in Washington, leaving people puzzled over why he came back in the first place.

Obama’s two days in Washington were mostly quiet, and concluded with the president receiving his daily national security briefing in the morning, and joining Vice President Biden to huddle with members of his economic team in the afternoon.

Administration officials have insisted for weeks that the president just wanted to return to the White House for a series of meetings, but the explanation was met with a healthy dose of skepticism, since Obama rarely interrupts his vacations.
Judicial Watch estimates the extra roundtrip cost $1.1 million. Only daughter Malia accompanied Obama back to Washington.

Speculation for why Obama returned focused around the possibility of a secret foreign leader meeting or the roll out of a new administration initiative on immigration or corporate taxes.

But no such explanation materialized.

Some are wondering why Obama went back, especially after the videotaped beheading of an American citizen, journalist James Foley, by ISIS. Jim Geraghty points out the uncomfortable juxtaposition of leadership choices between Obama and his UK counterpart David Cameron:

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron cut short his summer vacation to return to London and chair urgent meetings on the threat posed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, calling the video “shocking and depraved.” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the video appears to be genuine, adding that intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic were working to identify the voice on the tape.

“We are very concerned by the apparent fact that the murderer in question is British,” Hammond told NBC News partner ITV News. “We are urgently investigating.”

The UK is rightly concerned over the possibility that the jihadi in the video is British (and possibly a Gitmo alum), but it’s beyond debate that Foley is an American citizen. One could argue that Obama could be as easily briefed on whatever efforts are being made to investigate the beheading, but (a) one could also make that argument about Cameron who returned to work anyway, and (b) that leaves the White House to explain why Obama came back to work this week rather than just keep conducting business at Martha’s Vineyard. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius urged his European colleagues to come back from their vacations last week, and here we have the leader of the free world returning to his.

At a time when Americans need to see some commitment to leadership in the midst of multiple crises, this return to the golf links is a huge mistake — even more so now than when I wrote this last week:

Obama has particular vulnerability on Iraq. Three years ago, he proudly declared that he had kept his promise to get all troops out of the country, and two years ago campaigned on the fact that Mitt Romney would have kept U.S. troops there had he been president. In January of this year, Obama infamously dismissed ISIS as “a jayvee team” to al Qaeda, and shrugged them off as “jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes.”

Meanwhile, two weeks ago, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency told an audience that the U.S. is less safe than it was “several years ago” and that rather than being on the run, the al Qaeda ideology “sadly feels like it’s exponentially grown” during that time.

On Saturday, with Marine One in the background, standing by to whisk him away to Martha’s Vineyard, Obama announced that he had ordered the U.S. military to conduct airstrikes on ISIS to prevent a potential genocide. He then proceeded to claim that removing all troops from Iraq wasn’t his decision, but was a situation forced on him by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Needless to say, the dramatic cognitive disconnects in Obama’s narrative don’t do much to maintain even the current low confidence in his leadership, let alone repair the damage. While Obama can certainly run the American response from his vacation retreat to the genocide unfolding in real time, his insistence on doing so reinforces the conclusion that the president isn’t taking the ISIS threat seriously.

Most Americans would expect that the sudden epiphany about the genocidal threat posed by ISIS would have a president working overtime. This time, at least, the need to boost confidence in the president’s leadership should have outweighed his legitimate need for some downtime outside the Beltway bubble.

Obama’s doubling down on detachment, and it will have a corrosive effect on the perception of his leadership and engagement just when Democrats — and really, all Americans — need to see him demonstrating strong leadership.

Update (AP): Now watch this drive.

After delivering an ardent statement on the execution of James Foley by ISIS militants, President Obama’s motorcade returned to the golf course on Martha’s Vineyard.

“The president walked quietly into the cafeteria of the school, tieless but wearing a blue jacket,” read the latest White House press pool report. “Eric Schultz accompanied him. Obama stepped to a podium and delivered his remarks, then turned quietly and walked out of the room. The room was silent as he did.

“Afterward, the motorcade drove to the Vineyard Golf Club.”