White House aides were trying to end a growing distraction just as the president plans to make a fresh push to rally public support behind his ambitious agenda to tighten gun laws, traveling to Minnesota on Monday.
The photo, taken by White House photographer Pete Souza, depicts a sunglasses-wearing Obama firing what appears to be a Browning Citori 725, the shotgun wedged against his left shoulder, a pillow of white smoke emerging from the barrel.
The photo was published a week after Obama claimed in an interview with the New Republic that he routinely shoots skeet at Camp David. The surprising assertion — Obama’s golfing and basketball hobbies are far better known — instantly stirred the political zeitgeist.
Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, was asked for evidence in the White House briefing room. “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart poked fun at the president’s apparent hobby. Gun-rights activists dismissed it, and some were skeptical that Obama was a routine skeet shooter.
A Republican congresswoman even challenged the president to a shooting contest.
“I’m sure they released the photo because there were folks raising questions about his answer, and those questions are a silly distraction in the midst of a serious debate,” David Axelrod, a longtime adviser to Obama, said in an e-mail.
“I know him pretty well. He doesn’t embellish,” Axelrod added. “If he says he’s done some shooting up there on occasion, I’m sure he has. He’s not a hunter or marksman and doesn’t pretend to be.”
The White House did not say how often Obama has gone shooting.
In the interview with the New Republic, Obama was asked if he had ever shot a gun.
“Yes, in fact, up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time,” he said.
Asked if his whole family goes shooting, Obama replied: “Not the girls, but oftentimes guests of mine go up there. And I have a profound respect for the traditions of hunting that trace back in this country for generations. And I think those who dismiss that out of hand make a big mistake.”
But while the White House made clear Saturday that the president has shot skeet at least once, the release of the photo seemed more likely to inflame passions around the issue than douse them.
Current and former advisers to Obama compared skeptics of Obama’s skeet-shooting prowess to a group of conservatives, known as birthers, who cast doubt on whether Obama was born in the United States and kept exerting pressure until the president released a long-form birth certificate showing he was born in Hawaii.
“Attn skeet birthers. Make our day — let the photoshop conspiracies begin!” David Plouffe, Obama’s senior adviser until last week, wrote on Twitter early Saturday. Later in the day, he wrote, “Day made. The skeet birthers are out in full force in response to POTUS pic. Makes for most excellent, delusional reading.”