Pining for a Swaggering, Bare-Chested President? Get Over It

By Jill Lawrence

July 24, 2014 6 min read

Give him this: Amid international chaos, the president did cancel an appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"

On the other hand, golf and fundraising proceed as usual, as do burgers, beer and pool, and Barack Obama himself remains completely in character — cautious and unexcitable in public, working the phones behind the scenes, incremental in both word and deed.

That's fine with me. The last thing we need, after so many years of war, is presidential rhetoric or action that inflames existing conflagrations or starts new ones. But I understand that Obama's restraint since Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, and his insistence on holding to his routine, is maddening to Americans of certain temperaments and convictions.

Why hasn't Obama ripped apart his schedule and, for that matter, all the world leaders who are behaving so tragically badly these days? Where are his threats and his bold call to action? Where is the speech that will inspire the world? And if he's going to do photo ops in a pool hall with the governor of Colorado, where are the Putinesque pictures of him bare-chested astride a large horse or rising bare-chested from the sea?

At this point even bare-chested on a golf course might do it, so desperate are some conservatives to see machismo, a dash of commander-in-chief swagger, from this president.

"President Ronald Reagan famously implored the Soviets to `tear down this wall.' President Obama's injunction is, `Investigate this crash,'" National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote beneath the headline "The Alleged Leader of the Free World."

All you need to do is Google "while Obama played golf" to get a colorful catalog of complaints against the president — including transparent Republican rebukes over his fundraising (nice break for the GOP if he stopped, right?). But that's been constant noise for decades, as presidents have done the nation's business and seized down time as catastrophes played out across the globe.

George W. Bush captured this dynamic in absurdist fashion in 2002 when reporters interrupted his golf game to ask him about a terrorist attack in Israel. "We must stop the terror. I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive," he said, and swung his club.

Reagan was golfing in Augusta, Georgia, with his secretary of state, George Shultz, when a suicide bombing killed 241 U.S. Marines and service personnel at a compound in Beirut, Lebanon. He came right back to Washington, according to Robert McFarlane, his special envoy to the region at the time of the October 1983 attack.

That was the right call, given the nature of the incident — a terrorist assault on sleeping U.S. troops. But even those now saying Obama should stay home and stop the golf would not want him to model his substantive response on what Reagan did: Virtually nothing beyond withdrawing all U.S. forces. Middle East terrorists concluded at the time that "the United States had neither the will nor the means to respond effectively to a terrorist attack," McFarlane wrote in The New York Times in 2008.

Jimmy Carter offered another example of flawed crisis behavior when he became consumed with the fate of several-dozen Americans seized from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held hostage in Iran for 444 days. His preoccupation became the country's — ABC's "Nightline" originated as "America Held Hostage: Day 150" and so on — and made him appear impotent. An attempted helicopter rescue ended in calamity, he lost his reelection bid, and the hostages were released on the day of Reagan's inauguration.

That episode vividly demonstrated the risks of appearing captive to events. If Obama hunkered down in the White House to deal with Ukraine, Russia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Israel and the Central American children streaming across the border from Mexico, he'd inevitably be accused of being in a bunker. And, like Carter, he'd lose stature, because most of these problems are beyond his power to solve.

No options are optimal, and many could backfire. If Obama sharpens his rhetoric against Russian president Vladimir Putin, he risks losing Putin's help with Iran and Syria, and makes it harder to contrive a face-saving way for Putin to back off in Ukraine. He could continue to unilaterally escalate sanctions against Russia and Putin, but holding out for unified international action might have more impact. Then again, if Putin feels globally shunned, will he be even more aggressive?

These are real decisions with real consequences. How they play out is how Obama should be judged — not by whether he plays golf or raises money or stops somewhere for a burger.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at


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