Note well the word in the headline: “Presidents,” plural. When you ask them whether Obama specifically plays too much golf, the numbers tighten, but then that’s always true when you ask a question about a sitting president. Even then, a plurality says Obama doesn’t play too much. See now why I’m surprised that David Axelrod and Bill Burton would so far as to apologize to George W. Bush in the name of spinning O’s golf habit? If the public doesn’t much care, why should they?
Those numbers are easily explained and should have been predictable. For Democrats, many of whom crapped happily on Dubya for spending too much time at the ranch, this is a pure exercise in wagon-circling. They’ve got two more years invested in this guy; they’re not going to see what’s left of his political capital go up in smoke because of golf. If Axelrod and Burton are worried, they’re worried because the media and the chattering class seem irritated with O’s golfing and those aren’t the people you want to alienate right before an election. That’s how unhelpful narratives take shape.
Independents are divided and Republicans are, of course, critical of O — but not quite to the extent that Democrats are defensive of him. You’ve got some small but meaningful minority of GOPers who think this subject is overblown and we can only guess at the reasons. Maybe they find obsessing about “optics” silly and juvenile, especially given that modern presidents effectively take the entire White House with them while on vacation. Or maybe, as many libertarians and paleocons do, they think that the presidency has assumed far too much space in the public imagination. If you want a less powerful executive, says Michael Brendan Dougherty, you should be happy to see Obama golfing. He’s doing less damage there than he could basically anywhere else, and he’s signaling, however unwittingly, that the president is not, in fact, in control of all major events in American life. Thank goodness.
In truth, Obama’s golf habit, along with his newer practice of enjoying long dinners with people he finds interesting, is one of the best things about his presidency. Unconsciously, President Obama is doing a good thing for the American Republic. He’s helping us to disgorge an overly symbolic view of the presidency, in which the president is the ever-present lawman, the people’s official therapist, and the embodiment of the public mood. Obama golfing is a sign that the American presidency is still a job, not a divine office…
The executive branch itself is badly overgrown. The presidency needs a legal downsizing most of all. It needs to be stripped of its unconstitutional prerogatives, and American government could do with re-assertion of the responsibilities of Congress. But we could too easily underrate a symbolic downsizing of the presidency.
That argument would be easier to swallow if Obama had sought to downsize the presidency in any other way. Instead he’s done the opposite — wars without congressional authorization, treaties without Senate approval, and a looming amnesty for millions of people while the legislature is trying to find its way on immigration. Hitting the links every weekend doesn’t turn a guy like that into Calvin Coolidge. On the contrary: It feels like kingly disengagement, the habit of a man who could be using his time to try to build legislative consensus for his policies but would rather practice putting between issuing the day’s royal decrees on Syria and climate change and immigration. And even if Obama wanted to signal his support for more modest presidential power, he could do it in a way that seems less callous than dancing the night away while police square off with protesters in Ferguson and fist-bumping with buddies while the rest of the world is watching James Foley’s head get cut off. In each case, he could have made a short statement and then enjoyed some low-key R&R behind closed doors. The knock on O isn’t that he should have personally ridden to the rescue in Missouri or Iraq, it’s that he now seems so disengaged from public concerns that he’s actually partying while they’re unfolding. That perception is what Axelrod and Burton are worried about. Albeit, probably worried too much.