06.17.11

Obama’s Golf Diplomacy

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner teed off on their buzzed-about golf game on Saturday. After Boehner sunk a long putt on the first hole, Obama told reporters, "Did you all catch that?" Then patted Boehner on the back. Naturally, the president took the wheel of the golf cart to bring them to the next hole. Daniel Stone reports on their policy rift.

In a city known for power outings, President Obama’s golf match Saturday with House Speaker John Boehner may wind up being the most high-stakes leisure weekend of the year.

Vice President Joe Biden is joining the pair Saturday, as is Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich, to round out the partisan balance. But the subject isn’t just golf. The long-planned summit has turned into a de facto negotiating session over government spending aimed at trying to strike a deal on raising the U.S. debt limit before America defaults in early August.

The setting, of course, is designed to allow an air of candidness, away from the Capitol Hill cameras and partisan zingers.

The golf summit won’t completely bridge the divide on addressing the deficit and debt limit. Biden has been overseeing bipartisan talks with congressional leaders and there are signs that the two sides are edging closer on some issues.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a top lieutenant to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said this week that the talks he has been attending were aimed at securing a deal by July 1. Biden confirmed that progress had been made on health care and education, but the parties still couldn’t agree on how much to cut the deficit, and what to do with long-term entitlements.

The stakes are increasing by the day. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has set a date of Aug. 2 before the government goes into default with catastrophic effects. With still substantial differences between congressional Democrats and Republicans, a protracted stalemate would push Obama and Boehner to make further concessions to each other.

Despite the intense media attention, the political golf match is one of two high-profile golf events in Washington over the weekend. Just up the road in Bethesda, Maryland, is the U.S. Open, which has brought big names like Rory McIlroy and Zach Johnson, as well as many gawking members of Congress, inside the Beltway.

If the Obama-Boehner match works—and the White House has long said it won’t discuss the contents of their conversation, or results of the match—it wouldn’t be the first time business usually reserved for marble halls had been hammered out on the greens.

With still substantial differences between congressional Democrats and Republicans, a protracted stalemate would push Obama and Boehner to make further concessions.

When Lyndon B. Johnson was scouting for votes for the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he charmed some Republicans on the golf course to seal the deal.

The links also have been used to escape the confines (and decorum) of the Oval Office. In the late 1990s, Bill Clinton took his longtime friend Vernon Jordan, where sex was reportedly the dominant topic of conversation. (“There’s nothing wrong with a little locker-room talk,” Jordan told a reporter in 1996.) Clinton also, on another occasion, made an ethically questionable request of Jordan: to help find a job for Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern at the center of the impeachment scandal.

The sport has ballooned in popularity in Washington over the last few decades, with most politicos getting in at least a round or two each summer. Golf Digest magazine ranked all elected officials based on their handicap. At the top of the list Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), followed by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and John Yarmuth (D-KY).

But the setup of Saturday’s match—a sitting president playing with the leader of the opposing party—is rare. With a low handicap, Boehner is widely expected to breeze by Obama. Of course while discussing numbers in the trillions, what’s a few extra strokes?