Anyone who doubts American exceptionalism should scan the headlines about President Barack Obama’s non-golf outing last week in Westchester.
It was an extraordinary thing. The president was in the county for fundraisers and a wedding when he got an itch for the links. Westchester is renowned nationally for its verdant and challenging courses, so the president’s staff unsurprisingly reached out to request accommodations for a presidential round at three of the county’s best known golf clubs, Winged Foot, Trump National and Willow Ridge. Each rejected the White House request out of hand, so the president flew back to Washington, according to a report from WNBC-TV.
Granted, this would have been seriously disruptive to members of those clubs. It was Labor Day weekend — one of the busiest golf weekends of the year. But a presidential request is a presidential request. It’s supposed to carry serious weight. If I were managing one of those clubs, I’d have said “yes,” despite the inconveniences involved.
At the same time, one has to marvel that we live in a nation where it’s so easy to deny a president, not once but thrice in a day. In a world teeming with autocrats, that’s still a pretty remarkable thing.
To the outside world, though, I’m sure this looked more like presidential weakness than profound and counterintuitive American strength. It was another incident playing into the collective narrative that President Obama’s power is flagging at home and abroad. That narrative flows easily because there’s truth to it. Can anyone imagine one of these clubs rejecting this president in his Nobel Peace Prize days?
The golf episode was minor. But it raises a larger, important issue. Our president is floundering just as he’s being seriously challenged on three international fronts. Russia is openly mocking him while flirting with outright war in Ukraine; China is fearlessly provoking its neighbors and all hell is breaking loose in the Middle East. The world is watching his every move and failure. Maybe it’s time to float this president a few rounds here at home — in a pugilism, not golf sense — until he can regain some of his footing in the eyes of foreign leaders.
It’s easy to grow frustrated with this president. He appears disinterested and distracted. He wanders from political speech to vacation spot without accomplishment or seeming purpose. I doubt many people can even say what he stands for anymore or where he intends to lead the nation for the next two years. But he’s still our president, and he’s seriously off stride. That’s a dangerous thing.
The president seems to finally understand this. In a televised foreign policy speech Wednesday night, he’ll try to right the error he made last month in saying that America has no strategy to defeat ISIS. He’s also acknowledged for the first time that he doesn’t always play the presidential part well. Hopping onto a tee to drive a Titleist moments after mourning the beheading of an American journalist wasn’t his best moment.
“I should’ve anticipated the optics,” President Obama said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “Part of this job is also the theater of it. It’s not something that always comes naturally to me. But it matters.”
It sure does. With sophisticated propagandists around the world pouncing on every perceived flub or weakness demonstrated by our president, he needs to be more disciplined. But America’s political class, too, needs to take care not to undercut this president too sharply while the world teeters in crisis. President Obama’s political weakness may be a big fat target to us here at home, but so is this country to the larger world.