Obama's crazy Augusts: Why this one's relatively mild, by his standards!

Presidents typically suffer in August, when all eyes turn to them. This year, Obama has accepted it as inevitable

Published August 25, 2014 7:31PM (EDT)

Barack Obama                             (AP)
Barack Obama (AP)

Imagine that: It's August and everyone is mad at President Obama. His poll numbers are sliding, as presidential poll numbers are wont to do in August.

People are mad at him for having kept his magic Middle East-fixing wand (relatively) sheathed while a group such as ISIS continues to exist in Syria, Iraq and wherever else. Playing the "another 9/11" card is no longer a move relegated to the likes of John McCain and Lindsey Graham; it's become almost a requirement for all members of Congress and pundits and retired generals earning cable news contributor pensions. Newly reborn "reasonable Republican" Rep. Paul Ryan, for instance, is demanding to hear from Obama "that he has a strategy to finish ISIS off." Well! No problem, Paul. Surely he has the file just lying around here somewhere ...

The tragic shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has also been contorted to blow back on the president. Depending on one's leanings, he has either been too passive in responding to the over-the-top police response in Ferguson or too active in condemning the police. He "should stop micromanaging local police and stop playing the politics of division," as Laura Ingraham said after Obama's first comments on the Ferguson situation earlier this month, adding that "there is supposed to be a difference between being the president of the United States and a liberal commentator on Salon.com."

The image that's captured dismay with the president's performance this month has been golf. Republicans, as always, are claiming that President Obama is too busy playing golf, and vacationing in luxurious digs on Martha's Vineyard, to focus on the pressing issues of the moment. Democrats, especially those in difficult reelection races, are also concerned about how the media coverage of the president playing golf frequently while on vacation will rain down negatively on them. And liberal and centrist pundits are running over each other to give the ol' We think concern over "optics" is silly, but these are some bad optics! analysis. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has channeled her anger over the president's golf addiction into one of her classic "concept columns," fusing it ever-so-cleverly with the Gettysburg Address. It works on so many levels!

Golf works well as an image, because of its air of exclusivity, but any other activity would suffice. Windsurfing, clearing brush, fingerpainting, tennis, hiking, swimming, Scrabble, "Breaking Bad" marathon sessions, karate, jai alai, cow-tipping, whatever: It's all leisure, and presidents are not paid for leisure! Ironically, it's a concurrence of governmental vacations that makes August especially bad for presidents. Members of Congress, as is often overlooked, go on an actual six-week vacation for the entirety of August. With those suckers out of the news, more attention -- from both the media and members of Congress on the campaign trail -- than usual is focused on the president's activities, including his two-week vacation. And the world continues to happen. A foreign policy situation or two erupts. There's a domestic situation. All eyes turn to the president, and the president is rarely able to fix these things on his own, immediately, whether or not he's on a working vacation.

By Obama administration August standards, though, the late-summer of 2014 has been relatively tame. More concretely: It's been, at most, the third most insane August of his presidency. The eruption of rancor we're seeing now is nothing compared to the Augusts of 2009 and 2010. That's no coincidence, since the first two years of Obama's presidency -- the Glenn Beck era, as a proud nation might define it for posterity -- were two of the stranger political years conjurable.

August 2009 was the "health care town hall" year: a half-frightening, half-hysterical late summer in which members of Congress spent their vacations being berated by constituents spitting nonsense they'd read in chain emails (/from Sarah Palin) about how Obama was planning to murder each American by expanding access to medical coverage. It was perhaps the only month in memory in which a politician being punched in the face over a talk-radio rumor wouldn't have come as especially surprising news.

But at least the anger of the '09 town halls had a reasonable referent -- pending congressional legislation. That was not the case in August 2010, the season of the "ground zero" "mosque" controversy, a period unmatched in terms of "is this really a thing?" stupidity. This was when developers, led by an imam, were trying to secure permits and funding to build a community center -- comparable to a fancy YMCA -- several blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center towers in lower Manhattan. This local zoning issue, thanks to the conservative media machine, rapidly graduated into the top news story of the summer and early fall, as word spread that the jihadists were planning to build a "Victory Mosque" "on the site of" the 9/11 attacks. Obama eventually got involved and suggested everyone chill out, as he typically does during these heady eruptions. And, as is also typical, that only led people to scream more, at him.

If there's anything different about this August's insanity, it's that Obama, for better or worse, seems to have accepted the August nose dive as an inevitable facet of American political life. He knows that soon, the headlines about how he plays golf while bad things happen will disappear. He's planning to unveil some sort of executive action on immigration imminently. And a more comprehensive response to the ISIS situation appears to be on its way. Those things will probably dominate the news in very short order. So get in your best shots while you can, August. He's conceded you.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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