On Wednesday, President Obama reacted to the murder of journalist James Foley by ISIS terrorists with comments that seemed unusually angry for a president that is normally most comfortable playing the comedian-in-chief while flaying his political opponents. But, as even the New York Times noted in a surprisingly critical front-page article this morning, his decision to follow this moment of national grief by heading straight to the golf course, where he allowed himself to be photographed laughing and having a good time with his cronies, has rubbed even partisan Democrats the wrong way.
As with his original decision to go ahead with his vacation last week despite the fact that Iraq was imploding, what is interesting about this controversy is not so much the time off during a crisis or the golf as the arrogance and contempt for public opinion that this president consistently demonstrates.
As the Times notes, he is not the first president that has been forced to try and strike a balance between his need for a break from the crushing responsibilities of the White House and the need to avoid demonstrating insensitivity to tragic events. But while his predecessors learned, after some mistakes, to steer clear of incongruous juxtapositions, this president doesn’t think he has to do so. As inconsequential as a flap over pictures of Obama cavorting on the links may seem, this may tell us more about the nature of this presidency and his legacy than his defenders or even some of his critics would care to admit.
As I wrote last week, it wouldn’t have killed Obama to postpone his vacation by a day or two to show the country that he was on the job in dealing with an implosion of Iraq that was largely caused by his own mistakes. Similarly, it must have occurred to someone on his staff that maybe heading straight from the Foley statement to the golf course was not only bad optics but also called into question the sincerity of the president’s comments about a subject that had to have touched him deeply.
But this episode is more than just a question of bad tactics. It tells us two important things about the way this president operates.
The first is that even if there was someone working in the vacation version of the West Wing who was smart enough to see this problem coming, we already know that the modus operandi of the Obama inner circle is that this is a president who clearly does not listen to his advisors or suffer to be told that his instincts or opinions are wrong. As much as he loves to preen about his willingness to hear all sides of an issue before he decides policy, this is not a man who brooks disagreement once he makes up his mind whether the issue is great or small.
Second, arrogance is not merely a personal quality of this president; it is a defining characteristic. When faced with a question of whether he should alter his behavior to conform to a sense of public decency or to go ahead and do what he wants, he always seems to prefer the latter.
There is an argument to be made that it is important that presidents not be held hostage to events or to be constantly altering their schedules to avoid the perception of giving offense. The ISIS terrorists who mentioned the president in their message concerning the Foley murder in which they said the fate of their other American hostage rests on whether the president ceases U.S. attacks on the group clearly would like to see him cowering. But it should also be pointed out that part of this president’s foreign-policy problem is that foes, such as Iran, Russia, and terror groups, have long since concluded that Obama is not a serious person, let alone a wartime leader. So long as that is true, the United States must expect that it will continue to be challenged and tested in a manner that might not happen were the president a man who was capable of learning from past mistakes. In this case, a mere matter of public perceptions stops being fodder for cable news political debates and becomes an invitation to mayhem on the part of irresponsible foreign actors who don’t believe Obama is capable of enforcing consequences upon them.
Given the fact that this president has not been gun shy about ordering hits on terrorists, that perception may be false. But the spectacle of Obama guffawing on the golf course right after issuing a statement of warning to ISIS was not one that is likely to deter other terrorists or nations seeking to test America’s will. Arrogance is a characteristic that can trump all others when one is in the public eye. But what all politicians—be they smart or not so intelligent—eventually learn, is that in public life, sooner or later style becomes substance. The fact that President Obama has yet learned this or is simply too stubborn and arrogant to adjust to the realities of his office tells us all we need to know about what a flawed leader he remains.