...As Long as You Have a Plan for Staying out of the Rough!
They say appearances are everything, and in politics, they can sometimes be damning. To hear President Obama's critics tell it, his long weekend of sun and golf in Rancho Mirage, California in the middle of this mess in Iraq, just didn’t and doesn’t look good. Forget, “No drama Obama,” some Republicans argued it's more like, “No Clue Obama.”
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I don’t agree, and it has nothing to do with whether I like golf. I don’t even play golf! I just think the president is still president no matter who he is and no matter where he is. Same entourage. Same briefings. And last time I checked, same phones in California as in Washington, D.C. So to assume the President is removed from his office because he is far from his actual office, loses sight of the simple fact that no matter where the executive goes, so goes the executive office.
Just be careful overstating the appearance thing, because appearances very often can be deceiving. Remember John F. Kennedy’s seemingly mundane public appearances in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis? Americans didn’t even yet know at the time, there even was a crisis. The Soviets didn't realize either, convinced by the president’s routine behavior, that they had pulled a fast one on him.
And who could have guessed in all those trips to his beloved Rancho del Cielo in California, Ronald Reagan wasn’t just cutting brush, he and his staff were dramatically cutting taxes? The historic plan was concocted there, planned in exhaustive detail there, and not surprisingly, signed into law there. Who knew? That’s the thing about appearances – they truly can be deceiving.
Does that mean President Obama is head-faking us now, just as those presidents did back then? Hard to say. But it is fair to say that just because he’s away from the office doesn’t mean official duties aren’t being done, and given the complex nature of any response to this Iraqi insurgency, official responses aren’t being weighed. Let’s just say I’m assuming they are. There just aren't easy responses, or apparently, quick responses either. We often learn in retrospect how presidents acted before major events – usually by conducting what seemed like routine events.
Critics of President Obama say I’m giving him way too much credit. They argue his consistent tone deafness on a host of issues – from heading out to a Las Vegas fundraiser only one day after his Libyan ambassador and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi, to making light of a painful and bumpy healthcare-reform rollout for millions of Americans – shows he’s disengaged.
For all I know, he might be, but taking a long weekend as he possibly weighs a stepped up American presence in Iraq, wouldn’t be out of reason, or for this president, out of character, or without historical precedent.
Still, images stick, and the president might be wise to remember those who handled crises without appearing to appreciate the gravity of those crises. When former BP boss Tony Hayward famously lamented about wanting to get his life back in the middle of the Gulf Oil spill mess that his company famously caused, let’s just say he didn’t win a lot of leadership points. He looked selfish and clueless. Shots of him sailing on his yacht a short time later compounded the image of a leader detached, if not laughably remote.
President George W. Bush’s famous Louisiana flyover right after Hurricane Katrina, though actually advised by local officials on the ground at the time because they couldn’t deal with the disruption of a presidential entourage, reinforced the perception Bush didn’t care. He did. But try wiping that first impression away.
Presidents and leaders of any sort – whether in government or in business – must carefully balance their public schedules with their very real professional demands. That doesn’t mean staying cooped up in the corner office or in the Oval Office. Jimmy Carter famously hunkered down in the White House pretty much throughout the Iranian Hostage crisis – and a lot good that did him!
So my free advice to any leader at such times: have a game plan for when time’s up. Many will doubt you mid-crisis, unless and until they see the wisdom of your leadership, after you’ve solved the crisis. That depends, of course, whether you do solve that crisis, and you’re not simply consumed by that crisis. Then you might as well play an extra round of golf, because you ain’t exactly getting out of the opinion poll rough.