Handicapping the Obama-Boehner ‘Golf Summit’

John Boehner

House Speaker John A. Boehner is unlikely to heed that advice when he and President Obama play a highly anticipated round of golf on Saturday. For one thing, Speaker Boehner, who has worked hard to maintain his single-digit handicap, is a better golfer than the president (by as many as 15 strokes, according to reliable estimates) and is not expected to dutifully tank his own game. Already, the Ohio Republican has used the “golf summit” as a chance to score a few political points off Mr. Obama, who finally — after much prodding by Mr. Boehner — invited the Republican leader to play 18 holes with him.

Last week Mr. Boehner embraced a “very good idea” he said he’d heard on a cable TV program — a suggestion that he tell Mr. Obama: “Mr. President, you can have all the strokes you want. It’ll just cost you a trillion dollars per stroke.”

In the annals of presidential golf history, the Obama-Boehner round next weekend is an oddity. A president has never played a round of golf with the leader of the opposing party who was also considered a near-lock to win the match (the closest thing was a round L. B. J. played with Dwight D. Eisenhower in February 1968 at Seven Lakes Country Club in Palm Springs, Calif.; Ike won in a breeze). So, perhaps Mr. Obama deserves to be spotted a few free strokes for sporting courage.

More important, the timing of the “golf summit” is curious (and not just because it coincides with the United States Open at nearby Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md.). Two wars (three, if you count health care; four, if you count Libya), a stubborn economic downturn and partisan rancor combine to make the president’s decision to play with Mr. Boehner a surprise and one that appears to offer more downside than upside to the White House.

Perhaps Mr. Obama was motivated in part to try to neutralize the criticism leveled by some right-leaning commentators about his Sunday devotion to golfing with his buddies; they see him benefitting from a media double standard that hurts Republican presidents who take to the links. But despite all the noise, Mr. Obama has played less often than some presidents, like the Democrat Bill Clinton and the Republican Eisenhower, although more frequently than other Republicans, like George W. Bush and his father. Some might say there is a another double standard: Mr. Boehner’s longtime passion for playing golf with lobbyists to raise money for his political action committee scarcely raises eyebrows.

But the president, who has not used golf outings to raise money for his re-election campaign (much to the chagrin of senior Democratic fund-raisers), takes a different approach to the game. He rarely, if ever, plays golf for anything but fun. Mr. Obama’s more than 70 rounds as president have been played almost exclusively with a tight circle of White House aides and close friends from Chicago or Hawaii, usually on one of Andrews Air Force Base’s three championship-level courses.

Mr. Boehner has been practicing often of late, and he has sounded determined not only to defeat the president but do it by a lot of strokes. Meanwhile, expectations of a golf-cart political breakthrough are being lowered at the White House and on Capitol Hill. “They will not resolve the budget negotiations on the back nine — at least I don’t expect that,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said last week. “This is more of a social outing.”

Nearly all past golfing presidents didn’t bother with such outreach to opponents, sticking instead to playing with members of their own party. President John F. Kennedy, for example, played a round or two with senators — William Stuart Symington and George Smathers, both friendly Democrats. As the best presidential golfer and a member of the Harvard golf team, J. F. K. could more than hold his own. President Warren G. Harding played with like-minded senators and congressmen but politics was absent; they all wagered heavily on the action (during some rounds, there was a bet on every swing). They also drank on the course and in the clubhouse — during Prohibition.

Beginning with William Howard Taft, 15 of the past 18 presidents have played golf. Most, like Eisenhower, Clinton and Gerald R. Ford, played for the sheer love of the game, even if their frequent rounds (and sometimes iffy score-keeping) caused political opponents to snipe and gripe. Ike, in particular, played so often that his critics said he invented the 36-hole work week. A few presidents, like Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan, played sparingly and even somewhat grimly.

Like most of his predecessors, Mr. Obama says he enjoys golf because it allows him to momentarily escape the pressures of the Oval Office. Happily, he leaves the public and the press behind on the first tee, and doesn’t have to see them again until a few paces past the 18th green. No reporters, armed with scorecards and little pencils, are permitted to follow.

“It’s the only excuse I have to get outside for four hours at a stretch,” Mr. Obama has said.

The gilded game has never boosted a president’s approval rating. The political scandals involving Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff and golf have not helped. And in late 2003, President George W. Bush stopped playing, saying, “I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf.”

Only one president played golf purely for political reasons. L. B. J. had zero interest in the game until his aides convinced him that he could use Congressional Country Club and other courses to lobby recalcitrant senators to support his civil rights legislation. If he got that, he’d chalk up an afternoon chasing a little white ball as something other than a waste of time.

When asked to reveal Mr. Obama’s current handicap, Mr. Carney, the White House spokesman, joked, “That’s classified.” L. B. J., on the other hand, said: “I don’t have a handicap. I’m all handicap.”

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