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Can 'Golf Diplomacy' Ease Obama-Boehner Tensions?

U.S. President Barack Obama greets House Speaker John Boehner before delivering remarks at a dinner of bipartisan committee chairmen and ranking members and their spouses at the White House, May 2, 2011
U.S. President Barack Obama greets House Speaker John Boehner before delivering remarks at a dinner of bipartisan committee chairmen and ranking members and their spouses at the White House, May 2, 2011
Kent Klein

President Barack Obama will host his main political rival, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, in a round of golf on Saturday.  No substantive agreements are expected, but an afternoon of golf between the two leaders may improve their relationship.      

President Obama and the top House Republican have clashed on issues ranging from the U.S. economy to health care reform to the military action in Libya.

In hopes of easing those tensions, Mr. Obama recently invited Speaker Boehner to join him for a round of golf.

Both sides have worked to quash expectations that any serious issues will be resolved on the golf course.

But White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says the president and the speaker may be able to better work together after sharing a relaxing afternoon on the links.

“Spending a number of hours together in that kind of environment, I think, can only help improve the chances of bipartisan cooperation," he said.  "It certainly cannot hurt it.  Unless someone wins really big, and then….”  

Don Van Natta wrote a book about U.S. presidents and their golf games, titled "First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers, and Cheaters from Taft to Bush."  He says if either golfer is expected to win convincingly on Saturday, it is Boehner.    

“From what I have heard, Speaker Boehner is about 12 to 15 strokes better than the president, which means the president is being quite courageous in inviting the speaker to play, because without a doubt, Speaker Boehner is going to get the best of the president on the links on Saturday,” he said.

However, Mr. Obama’s playing partner will be Vice President Joe Biden, whose golf game is said to rival that of Boehner.  The speaker’s partner will be the Republican governor of his home state of Ohio, John Kasich.

President Obama usually golfs with friends and White House aides.  Van Natta says it is highly unusual for a president to invite a political opponent to join him on the course.

“The closest example in history is Lyndon Baines Johnson, who played with Senators from the opposing party who he wanted to lobby to vote for the civil rights legislation in the mid-[19]60’s,” he said.

According to Don Van Natta, Mr. Obama started playing golf about 15 years ago, at the suggestion of his wife Michelle. She was said to be concerned that her husband was being injured too often while playing basketball.

Spokesman Jay Carney says Mr. Obama plays golf for the same reason as most other presidents-to relax and take a break from the pressures of the office.

“I think a lot of presidents who have occupied this house and this West Wing look for ways to literally get outdoors where you are not surrounded by people," he said.  "The process itself is one he enjoys as much as the game, which he does enjoy, and he is a competitive guy.”

For that and other reasons, golf has been a popular pastime among U.S. leaders for at least 100 years.

Van Natta says William Howard Taft was the first U.S. president to play golf regularly, and he loved the game.

“He was actually quite upset on one occasion when he had to meet with the president from Chile," he said. "It conflicted with one of his golf outings, and he said, ‘I will be damned if I am going to give up my golf game to see this fellow.’”

Van Natta says 15 of the past 18 presidents have played golf at least occasionally.

Dwight Eisenhower played more than 800 rounds in his eight years in office, and had a putting green installed near the Oval Office.

Gerald Ford suffered damage to his image after a ball he had hit accidentally flew into a crowd of spectators and struck a woman on the head.

Both the president and the speaker have been practicing for their 18 holes on Saturday.

And in a recent interview, Boehner said playing golf is “a great way to really get to know someone.”

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