Golf season has returned, and with it jokes about the president's obsession with the game. Newt Gingrich has accused President Obama of cowering behind his putter in crisis. "It strikes me that the more difficult [the world] gets, the more the president golfs and the more the president hides," he said.
Golf jokes are a hardy presidential perennial. Democrats made so much fun of Eisenhower's frequent outings that Kennedy had to hide his regular golf matches for fear of catching the same grief. (Kennedy kept many things hidden.) Presidential golf jokes may be the laziest of all political humor, with the possible exception of jokes about presidential vacation time. Jokes about presidential appearance are also lazy, but they're just cheap shots: Golf jokes are not only intellectually lazy, but like teleprompter jokes, they encourage the audience to be lazy, too. No one has to bother thinking about what a president actually does.
Why do we care about this dumb joke? Because it is politically potent. You'll probably be hearing variations of it a lot during the 2012 campaign. More important, we should care because it exposes a larger problem in the way we view presidents and evaluate candidates. For presidents who can never escape their job, we should encourage golf playing, not mock it.
A president's critics always go for the golf joke because it irritates people at a gut level. And the gut level is where you need to go if you want to pick up votes. To say a president is wrong on some policy issue or another is only so damaging. To suggest he is so clueless that he's lining up his putt while the world burns is what really gets a voter outraged. If you're a working-class voter, you may even get irritated that a guy getting paid with your taxes is playing what's seen as a rich man's sport.
Gingrich, apparently unconcerned about drawing attention to his own past extracurricular activities, adds a special twist: Obama is a coward. The only evidence he needs for this charge is that someone (it doesn't have to be him, though he is happy to oblige) accuse the president of not doing everything he can on a given issue, and a few pictures of the president golfing or on vacation. And these two pieces of evidence—like "Hail to the Chief" and the presidential seal—come with the job.
Gingrich hopes that golf will become a symbol for a vast catalog of problems with Obama. Every time you see Obama golf, Gingrich wants you get enraged. If things really work out for Republicans, golf will start coming up in David Axelrod's focus groups, and maybe Obama's advisers will have to suggest to the president that he stop playing.
Obama should resist—and, regardless of party, we should all want him to. The presidency is a prison. Your every move is watched and tended by the Secret Service, your opponents, and the media. Even when you're "having fun," you do so in quotation marks. At parties or a baseball game, you're watched to see if you're having a good time. If you play basketball, your on-court demeanor is analyzed for clues to your leadership style. You don't drive. You can't keep a diary (they can be subpoenaed). You can't smoke (the kids are watching). You can't take a stroll through your old neighborhood. All of this distorts the mind.