Obama and the question of resolve

August 22, 2014

President Barack Obama at Farm Neck Golf Club, in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

On Wednesday afternoon, President Obama made strong and forceful remarks in response to the grisly beheading of an American journalist, James Foley, by the militant extremist group Islamic State. Obama spoke of the group's ambitions to "commit genocide," called their ideology "bankrupt," and said "there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer." He promised to "continue to confront this hateful terrorism" —

And then he went golfing.

Conservatives railed against the move. The New York Daily News called out "Bam's Golf War" in an unsubtle cover. Even some who support the president claimed it showed a "lack of class."

The optics were certainly bad, especially given that British Prime Minister David Cameron cut short his vacation to return to London after it appeared that Foley's butcher may have been British. Yet the problem isn't just that the president plays golf, or that he shouldn't be vacationing on Martha's Vineyard while protests in Ferguson flare and airstrikes in Iraq fall. It's that those fit into an ongoing public narrative: This president has had a hard time convincing people of his resolve.

This is the same president, after all, who caught himself in a rhetorical trap after speaking of Syria crossing a "red line." It's the same one whose gun control campaign was panned by some as settling. And it's the same president whose critics have chided his "leading from behind," his resolve in the Ukraine, and his middle way in Egypt.

Many of those critics have political reasons for taking aim, of course. And what looks like vacillation or indecision on Obama's part could actually be thoughtful prudence or calculating realism. But those narratives haven't been the ones that have taken hold. Instead, the one of a risk-averse president who tries to have it both ways — whether fair or unfair — is what has stuck in public discourse.

That's part of why it's so critical that Obama back up his speech Wednesday with actions. His airstrikes have shown some important recent success. But the president can't just talk about extracting a cancer or being "vigilant" and "relentless," and then do nothing different in response. His next move doesn't have to dramatic, necessarily. It might be to try to build a coalition of Arab countries or simply to get defense officials talking about the severity of the Islamic State as a foe. But there's one thing it shouldn't be: more golf.

Read also:

Obama's Egypt remarks highlight his tepid leadership

Syria is Obama's biggest leadership test yet

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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