President Barack Obama gave Americans an update on U.S. military strikes in Iraq on Saturday from a podium on the White House lawn with Marine One, the presidential helicopter, parked in the background.
Four hours later, he offered an altogether different tableau: a golf game with friends at a lush course on Martha’s Vineyard, the upscale Massachusetts island where the president and his family began a two-week vacation.
The contrasting scenes, which quickly sparked some hostile commentary from critics, illustrate the dilemma of taking time off when you are the most powerful leader in the world and, by definition, handling major issues all the time.
Part of the problem is dealing with appearances, or ‘optics’ as Washington pundits like to call it.
With crises boiling in Gaza, Iraq and Ukraine, Obama – like his presidential predecessors in similar circumstances – proceeded with plans for a summer break, but only after making his Iraq statement against the very presidential backdrop.
Administration officials made clear he would continue to do his job even while getting some time off, and a phalanx of aides, including national security adviser Susan Rice, came along to ensure that a virtual Oval Office was never far away.
“The president will be traveling to Massachusetts with an array of communications equipment and national security advisers and others to ensure that he has the capacity to make the kinds of decisions that are required for the Commander-in-Chief,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Friday.
“And if there’s a need for the president to return to the White House, it’s not a long flight from Martha’s Vineyard back to Washington, D.C.”
White House officials go to great pains to show Obama is on top of world events even when he is on fundraising trips or family vacations.
On Saturday they released statements describing calls he made to British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Merkel call took place on Air Force One during Obama’s flight to Massachusetts.
The president’s Republican critics have already hammered him for going ahead with a vacation just days after authorizing airstrikes in Iraq – the first direct U.S. military action there since the last U.S. troops withdrew in 2011.
But White House staff allowed press photographers to take pictures of the president with club in hand at the beginning of his Saturday game. That is rare. Journalists seldom get to view the president playing golf, which he does almost every weekend in Washington when the weather is good.
The fact that reporters were given access to him on the same day as his somber comments on Iraq showed a White House wanting to appear immune to critics of Obama’s taking time off.
THE PERILS OF GOLF
Such imagery has backfired before, however. While on vacation in Maine in August 2002, Republican President George W. Bush reacted to a suicide bombing in Israel from the first tee box on his golf course.
“I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now, watch this drive,” Bush said before swinging his club.
The Republican president later gave up playing golf when his popularity plummeted after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Obama, whose own popularity ratings in polls are among the lowest of his presidency, is not showing signs of giving anything up.
On Monday he plans to attend a Democratic fundraiser and, if previous vacations are a guide, he will spend the rest of his time putting, eating dinners at upscale restaurants, and spending time with his wife and two daughters.
This year’s presidential trip to the island is longer than previous years, when his stays have lasted just over a week. Obama, in office since 2009, is scheduled to return to the White House on Sunday for a couple of days of meetings before coming back to Martha’s Vineyard to finish his vacation.
Several dozen anti-Obama protesters held signs and waved at passing vehicles on Saturday afternoon at a traffic circle near a bridge that links the area to other parts of Massachusetts.
One sign read, “Stop Obama!” and another read, “Harboring illegals is a felony,” a reference to Obama’s planned executive orders to help undocumented immigrants.
Others voiced support for veterans of the Iraq war.
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