Oh, I don’t know. He seems pretty grief-stricken here, no?
"Aides said the golf game did not reflect the depth of his grief over Mr. Foley." — NYT, 08-21-14. pic.twitter.com/U0WkMsPJUv
— T. Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) August 22, 2014
Ask yourself this, though. Is “optics” really just a Beltway parlor game? My hunch about most low-information voters, a.k.a. most voters, is that they’d struggle to name who the vice president is when asked. We’re lucky if they’re cognizant of what happened to James Foley at all, let alone Obama’s reaction to it.
“As a general rule, I think that he’s right that you can’t be held hostage to the news cycle — the man deserves a bit of downtime,” said Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic strategist. “But in this particular instance, I think a lot of Democrats flinched a little bit.”
The video, Mr. Manley added, “was just so shocking that the idea that he was going to immediately run to the golf course was just a little too much for folks; it was tone-deaf.”
Mr. Obama has traditionally resisted what he sees as the empty political gesture of abruptly upending his schedule in reaction to the latest crisis. Aides said the golf game did not reflect the depth of his grief over Mr. Foley, noting that the president had just spoken with his parents that morning. “His concern for the Foleys and Jim was evident to all who saw and heard his statement,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director…
For Mr. Obama, the video of Mr. Foley’s death is acutely personal because it showed one of three other American civilians held hostage, Steven J. Sotloff, suggesting he would be killed next if the president did not stop bombing ISIS targets in Iraq. “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” the masked killer says while holding the back of Mr. Sotloff’s orange, prison-style shirt.
Many factors conspired to make O’s golf outing seem distasteful — the brutality of the Foley video, the fact that David Cameron quit his own vacation in response to it, the contradiction in Obama’s vowing to be “relentless” against ISIS before proceeding immediately to the first hole. But the coda to the video showing Sotloff being menaced was the coup de grace politically, I think. Obama shouldn’t (and won’t) give in to ISIS’s demands to stop the bombing in order to spare Sotloff’s life but “fore” is not the proper response when you’re given an ultimatum that involves a man’s head being sawed off. And of course it reinforced the perception that this guy simply doesn’t much like his job anymore. If watching jihadis decapitate an American citizen isn’t enough to interrupt your recreation, what is?
But listen: Precisely because there are so many low-information voters out there, I think he’s dead right in how he’s calculated the cost/benefit in all of this. Namely, there’s no cost. Most people won’t care, some who do will forget about it literally tomorrow, and the people who’ll remember it forever were stalwart Obama critics in the first place. Have a look at his job approval ratings over the past two weeks or so if you doubt me. Conservatives have been hammering him for seeming disengaged since he landed on the Vineyard, more than a week before the Foley video was released. Michael Brown was killed on August 9; protests in Ferguson went on for days while Obama golfed. The campaign against ISIS also started rolling, with the fate of the Mosul Dam in the balance. He golfed on. Russia threatened to invade Ukraine and Israel’s attempts to contain Hamas wore on too, and still he golfed. Surely the public would react badly to a president frittering away his time on a famously elitist game while the world burned, right? Welp:
The top graph is the RCP poll average (black line = approve, red line = disapprove), the bottom is Gallup’s daily tracker (light green = approve, dark green = disapprove). It could be that a backlash is coming and has simply been delayed for whatever reason, but so far, his job approval’s actually risen slightly since his little Martha’s Vineyard Pro-Am started. And really, that’s not surprising. By year six, most presidents are so overexposed and their shtick so fatiguing to the public that they may actually benefit from dropping off the public’s radar for awhile. Couple that with the fact that O has ordered some high-profile action while in the clubhouse — sending Holder to Ferguson, bombing ISIS, and making occasional brief statements about both subjects — and he may have found a comparatively comfortable spot in public opinion right now. And of course, both Ferguson and ISIS are subjects that don’t (or shouldn’t) invite an obvious partisan response. In ordering action on both, he gets to play the above-the-fray statesman who wants to solve America’s problems instead of the guy who’s constantly whining about Republicans. That’s helping his numbers too. Go figure that he’s not worried about optics.