Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File, Associated Press
Do they or don't they golf in office? Recent presidents have been criticized either way — but President Obama needs to be mindful of timing and perception.

"Golf, sir? Golf sends the wrong signal to the grieving families of our men and women butchered in Iraq? … You, Mr. Bush, let their sons and daughters be killed. Sir, to show your solidarity with them you gave up golf?"

That was former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann’s scornful rhetorical questioning of George W. Bush in 2008 when the then-president announced that he would stop playing golf for the duration of the Iraq war. “I don't want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf,” President Bush said. “I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.”

Olbermann was not the only one to mock the president for this position, but it seems commanders-in-chief are criticized either way. President Obama’s decision to hit the links right after the beheading of American journalist James Foley has drawn ridicule from the left and the right, with Maureen Dowd of the New York Times summing up the case against him with a parody of the Gettysburg Address titled “So help me Golf.” The conventional wisdom is that all of this time spent on the green is indicative of a disconnected president who is not taking his job seriously.

Is that a fair assessment? Not really. There is nothing a president can do to avoid criticism. Bush was excoriated for not golfing, while Obama’s lambasted for golfing too much. The fact is that presidents are human beings, too, and golf is a wholesome recreation that allows them to unwind in the face of the tremendous burdens of their office. In addition, the accusation that this president isn’t fully engaged is inconsistent with the frequent criticism that he’s doing too much on his own. A solid case can be made that the accusations of a lackadaisical president don’t match up with reality.

Even so, President Obama should know better than this.

President Obama understands, probably better than anyone else, that in Washington, D.C., perception is reality. Yes, this is all just a public relations issue, but when it comes to the presidency, public relations matter. If the president is perceived as weak, that perception negatively affects his ability to get things done. In his first presidential campaign, Obama told the New York Times that “the bargain that any president strikes … is, you give me this office, and in turn my fears, doubts, insecurities, foibles, need for sleep, family life, vacations, leisure is gone.” He insisted then that anyone who wants to be the nation’s chief executive has to be willing to make that sacrifice.

He was right. It’s therefore difficult to understand why, now that he’s five years into the job, he’s ignoring his own advice.