President Obama has had a “killer rabbit” moment.
For those too young to recognize the phrase, it comes from the Carter Administration. Jimmy Carter was paddling down a river in a small boat — a strange thing for an incumbent president to do — when a rabbit swam into the stream. He used his oar to deflect it and prevent a collision.
For many, the resulting news clip became a metaphor for Carter’s performance as President. Instead of being able to deal effectively with Iranians who stormed the American Embassy, they said, the best he can do is protect himself against a rabbit, which they derisively labeled “a killer.” An abundance of “killer rabbit” jokes showed up on the late night shows. The phrase became a generic term for a supposedly trivial event that damages a politician’s image because it comes to be seen as confirmation of his inherent flaws.
Obama undoubtedly thought that the event which triggered his “killer rabbit” moment was trivial. After addressing an assembled press conference where he made an appropriately solemn statement of resolve and sympathy concerning the televised beheading of an American journalist, he walked off the podium without taking questions in order to make his tee time on the golf course. He had walked away from press conferences without answering questions before; no big deal.
But it was a big deal. It confirmed what many people, even some Democrats, have been saying about him, to wit: “He has resigned himself to being a lame duck. He has given up any goal for the next two years other than to attack Republicans. He is simply bored with his job.” Stiffing the press to go play golf qualifies as a “killer rabbit” moment because it reinforces these perceptions, on the left as well as the right.
Consider the comments of Maureen Dowd, a woman whose acid tongue is usually reserved for Republicans. She mockingly wrote “The Golf Address,” opening with:
“FORE! Score? And seven trillion rounds ago, our forecaddies brought forth on this continent a new playground . . . dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal when it comes to spending as much time on the links as possible — even when it seems totally inappropriate, like moments after making a solemn statement condemning the grisly murder of a 40-year-old American journalist beheaded by ISIL.”
She concluded with, “We here highly resolve . . . that this nation, under par, shall have a new birth of freedom to play the game that I have become unnaturally obsessed with, and that golf of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. So help me Golf.”
Ouch. Even Carter wasn’t zinged that painfully.
I do not believe that Obama has given up or is bored. I think he is frustrated by what Washington has become and I can understand how much he is attracted to the restorative power that can come from a few hours away from it all. But Carter’s encounter with the rabbit should have taught him that perceptions matter. The more he allows his golfing outings to reinforce the perception that he is not fully engaged, the worse it will be for his presidency and the country.
Gridlock in Congress aside, there is much to be done in international affairs. Under the Constitution, that is a presidential responsibility. If Obama really wants to have his “killer rabbit” moment dismissed as trivial, the best way for him to make that happen is to put a firm hand on the foreign policy tiller in this time of international turmoil.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.