Obama Golf With Woods in Florida Risks Muddling Message

President Barack Obama’s three-day Florida golf getaway featuring a round with Tiger Woods opened him to criticism of tone-deafness for playing when he’s at a budget impasse with Congress that threatens automatic spending cuts in less than two weeks.

After spending the President’s Day holiday weekend playing Floridian, a private golf course and club in Palm City, Florida, Obama returned to Washington last night. He faces a March 1 deadline to reach a deal with Congress to avert the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts, which threaten to crimp the U.S. economic recovery.

Joining Woods as Obama’s playing partners were businessmen and backer Jim Crane, who owns the course as well as the Houston Astros baseball team, Anthony Chase, former deputy chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and Milton Carroll, chairman of Centerpoint Energy Inc. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Obama’s Chicago friend Eric Whitaker and presidential aide Marvin Nicholson also joined Obama on the course, according to White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

Such a fantasy golf weekend is out of reach for most Americans and presents a contrast to Obama’s inaugural and State of the Union speeches, which focused on economic inequality in the U.S., according to Paul Light, a professor of public service and governance at New York University.

“It’s off-tone” Light said “It makes him seem like more of a Washington insider than the strong advocate of the middle class that he wants to be.”

Weekend Away

Obama, 51, paid for his own expenses, including greens fees, lodging and food, Earnest said. Taxpayers pay for presidents’ travel and that of his entourage of staff and Secret Service personnel. Obama received routine briefings on domestic and international developments during his stay.

“I don’t think the American people begrudge their president spending a rare weekend outside Washington with some friends on the golf course,” Earnest said.

Tony Fratto, a former White House spokesman under President George W. Bush, said while Obama likely wouldn’t have taken a private golf vacation with Woods and donors while running for re-election, the second-term president and his advisers have concluded any political risk now can be managed.

Obama played golf during his first term even while “there were two overseas wars going and a financial crisis, and he got re-elected,” Fratto said. “So I think they have come to the reasonable conclusion that the American people don’t really care.”

Public Perceptions

Still, a game with aides and associates at a course near Washington, Obama’s regular golf scene, is different than hobnobbing with Woods and donors, Fratto said. “If he truly didn’t worry about the optics of it, they would let people take pictures of him golfing.”

Reporters and photographers traveling with the president weren’t permitted to enter the Floridian course or club house.

“I can tell you, from someone who’s made decisions about whether you want the press in the room or not, when you think it’s not going to look good you generally don’t allow press coverage,” Fratto said.

Presidential leisure pursuits, particularly golf, have long been fodder for their political opponents and run the risk of clouding presidential messages, as they sometimes did for Fratto’s former boss.

After Palestinian terrorists staged attacks in Israel, including the suicide bombing of a bus, in August 2002 Bush gave the U.S. reaction from a golf course near his family’s vacation compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.

‘Wrong Signal’

“I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop to stop these terrorist killers,” Bush said, adding “Thank you. Now watch this drive.”

Bush also was playing golf in Waco, Texas, in August 2003 when he was told of a truck bomb attack on United Nations headquarters in Iraq that killed Sergio Vieira de Mello and at least 16 others. He left the course and changed out his golf clothes to deliver his reaction in that case.

In a 2008 interview with Politico, Bush said he gave up golfing shortly after that event because it sent the “wrong signal” as the U.S. was engaged in a war. “I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf,” he said in the interview.

Still, Bush didn’t give up getting away for recreation. He regularly spent part of his weekends riding his mountain bike at the U.S. Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, or at a Secret Service training facility in just outside Washington. Every August he retreated to his Texas ranch.

Presidential Tradition

Golf getaways are part of presidential tradition. Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th U.S. president, was such an avid golfer that he had a putting green installed on the White House lawn and was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame. Former President George H.W. Bush is in the hall of fame as well. Bill Clinton also enjoyed golfing outside of Washington.

The president’s break comes as Congress is out on a recess that will last all of the coming week, leaving no lawmakers for Obama to negotiate with even if he’d stayed in Washington.

Still, Obama and his aides must balance the benefits against the risks, Light said. Another downside to the golf trip was that all of Obama’s golf partners were male at a time the president has faced scrutiny over whether enough women hold key political, policy and cabinet posts, he said.

Added to that is that Woods, 37, the No. 2 player in the Official World Golf Ranking, is still rebuilding his image after a 2009 scandal over extramarital affairs derailed his marriage and career.

“You’ve got to be careful,” Light said. “Everything is a signal.”

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