No optical illusion: Obama balances world crises with golf, time off

Mr Obama laughs with former NFL star Ahmad Rashad (right) while playing a round of golf on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts August 9, 2014, where his family is taking a two-week vacation. The scene contrasted with his earlier statement from the Whi
Mr Obama laughs with former NFL star Ahmad Rashad (right) while playing a round of golf on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts August 9, 2014, where his family is taking a two-week vacation. The scene contrasted with his earlier statement from the White House lawn, sparking criticism from some quarters. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
US President Barack Obama delivering a statement before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on August 9, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke before travelling with his family to Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts, for their summ
US President Barack Obama delivering a statement before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on August 9, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke before travelling with his family to Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts, for their summer vacation. -- PHOTO: AFP 

OAK BLUFFS, Massachusetts (REUTERS) - President Barack Obama gave Americans an update on US military strikes in Iraq on Saturday from a podium on the White House lawn with Marine One, the presidential helicopter, parked in the background.

Four hours later, he offered an altogether different tableau: a golf game with friends at a lush course on Martha's Vineyard, the upscale Massachusetts island where the President and his family began a two-week vacation.

The contrasting scenes, which quickly sparked some hostile commentary from critics, illustrate the dilemma of taking time off when you are the most powerful leader in the world and, by definition, handling major issues all the time.

Part of the problem is dealing with appearances, or "optics" as Washington pundits like to call it.

With crises boiling in Gaza, Iraq and Ukraine, Mr Obama - like his presidential predecessors in similar circumstances - proceeded with plans for a summer break, but only after making his Iraq statement against the very presidential backdrop.

Administration officials made clear he would continue to do his job even while getting some time off, and a phalanx of aides, including national security adviser Susan Rice, came along to ensure that a virtual Oval Office was never far away.

"The President will be travelling to Massachusetts with an array of communications equipment and national security advisers and others to ensure that he has the capacity to make the kinds of decisions that are required for the Commander-in-Chief," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Friday.

"And if there's a need for the President to return to the White House, it's not a long flight from Martha's Vineyard back to Washington, DC".

White House officials go to great pains to show Mr Obama is on top of world events even when he is on fund-raising trips or family vacations.

On Saturday, they released statements describing calls he made to British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Merkel call took place on Air Force One during Mr Obama's flight to Massachusetts.

The President's Republican critics have already hammered him for going ahead with a vacation just days after authorising airstrikes in Iraq - the first direct US military action there since the last US troops withdrew in 2011.

But White House staff allowed press photographers to take pictures of the President with club in hand at the beginning of his Saturday game. That is rare. Journalists seldom get to view the President playing golf, which he does almost every weekend in Washington when the weather is good.

The fact that reporters were given access to him on the same day as his somber comments on Iraq showed a White House wanting to appear immune to critics of Mr Obama's taking time off.

Such imagery has backfired before, however. While on vacation in Maine in August 2002, Republican President George W. Bush reacted to a suicide bombing in Israel from the first tee box on his golf course.

"I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now, watch this drive," Mr Bush said before swinging his club.

The Republican president later gave up playing golf when his popularity plummeted after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

Mr Obama, whose own popularity ratings in polls are among the lowest of his presidency, is not showing signs of giving anything up.

On Monday, he plans to attend a Democratic fund-raiser and, if previous vacations are a guide, he will spend the rest of his time putting, eating dinners at upscale restaurants, and spending time with his wife and two daughters.

This year's presidential trip to the island is longer than previous years, when his stays have lasted just over a week. Mr Obama, in office since 2009, is scheduled to return to the White House on Sunday for a couple of days of meetings before coming back to Martha's Vineyard to finish his vacation.

Several dozen anti-Obama protesters held signs and waved at passing vehicles on Saturday afternoon at a traffic circle near a bridge that links Cape Cod to other parts of Massachusetts.

One sign read, "Stop Obama!" and another read, "Harboring illegals is a felony," a reference to Mr Obama's planned executive orders to help undocumented immigrants.

Others voiced support for veterans of the Iraq war.