Earlier this month, when the military-equipped local cops in Ferguson, Missouri, first began launching tear gas canisters at protesters enraged over the shooting by a white officer of an unarmed black teenager, social media lit up with anger at President Obama for attending a party. It's a familiar refrain — though one that usually focuses not on Obama's party-going or vacationing, but his golfing.
Obama's critics have long derided him for golfing while Putin rolls into Ukraine, or while ISIS does all the evil things they do. Some ding him for golfing when he could be speaking up for Senate Democrats in a tough campaign, or reaching across the aisle to the Republicans who control Congress. There's even an Obama golf counter website that quotes each time the president says he or his administration "will not rest." Clearly, this president rests quite frequently by playing 18 holes.
The New York Times prominently reported recently that after President Obama gave a forceful speech on the grisly beheading by ISIS of U.S. journalist James Foley, he was whisked away to his favorite golf course on Martha's Vineyard. An editorial in The Washington Post castigated him for the bad optics. They were hardly alone.
This minor panic over presidential duffing is unbecoming of a Republic.
For partisans, it's just too easy to attack presidents for their tony vacation spots like Kennebunkport or Martha's Vineyard. But would any of us really rather see the president chain-smoking near the pai-gow section at Bally's in Atlantic City? Everyone deserves a nice vacation from time to time, presidents included.
For other critics, there is something more deeply intense to their dislike of presidential vacations, almost like a barely suppressed (and absurd) wish that the head of the executive branch interrupt everything in the middle of the night to comment on street fights happening 1,400 miles away from him. It's a wish for Obama to be a benevolent, omnipotent, and omnipresent dictator. If he had rolled up to Ferguson standing on top of a tank and did his best impression of an "I got this" meme, the response on social media would have been, "Finally!"
In truth, Obama's golf habit, along with his newer practice of enjoying long dinners with people he finds interesting, is one of the best things about his presidency. Unconsciously, President Obama is doing a good thing for the American Republic. He's helping us to disgorge an overly symbolic view of the presidency, in which the president is the ever-present lawman, the people's official therapist, and the embodiment of the public mood. Obama golfing is a sign that the American presidency is still a job, not a divine office.
American presidents no longer take enough time off from their duties and from politics. Their vacation homes become a kind of mobile White House, where they receive constant briefings, conduct meetings, and negotiate with politicians here and abroad. The mania for the president to always be online extends even to his plane rides. It's not enough that his security detail be able to communicate, the president himself must always be on call.
Early presidents like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson took months off at a time. John Adams left Washington for over half a year to tend to his wife. While presidents today could hardly go to these extremes, they could surely be more leisurely than they are.
Now of course, there is something attractive about Rand Paul using a break in his schedule to use his skills as an ophthalmologist to serve the poor in Guatemala rather than spend his free time on the links. But supererogatory virtue is not a requirement for the chief executive. And some rest and leisure is the basis for every sane life.
The executive branch itself is badly overgrown. The presidency needs a legal downsizing most of all. It needs to be stripped of its unconstitutional prerogatives, and American government could do with re-assertion of the responsibilities of Congress. But we could too easily underrate a symbolic downsizing of the presidency.
While local police, and courts, and governments, and states, and business carries on, responding and checking each other in turn, let the president golf. If we want him to get back to his desk, Congress can send him a bill to sign.