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President Obama and Speaker John Boehner to tee off together

An unusual round of golf won't solve the Republican-Democratic budget battles, but it could lead to better relations between the White House and Congress.

June 17, 2011|By Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama gets away for a round of golf at Andrews Force Base. He likes to keep his golf game private and relaxed, which makes his decision to invite Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner for a round all the more unusual.
President Obama gets away for a round of golf at Andrews Force Base. He likes… (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — The president prefers a laid-back round on a Sunday morning. The Republican leader is a power player with a single-digit handicap.

For President Obama, simply inviting House Speaker John A. Boehner to hit the golf links together speaks to his effort to court the Ohio Republican. The president's weekly outing is typically a closely guarded, contemplative ritual. Political figures are rarely invited.

The president sticks to a quiet game with the same three staffers, all younger men and longtime loyalists. Small talk is infrequent and usually about the game they're playing. The conversation never veers toward government matters.

It's a striking departure in a town filled with political types who play golf as a matter of business and where presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton have used outings to woo a skeptic, make peace with an adversary or win a vote.

But in Obama's decision to break his golf bubble, Boehner seems an appropriate choice. The two men are likely headed for many long negotiations as the White House and Congress try to seek a deal to reduce federal spending and also raise the U.S. debt ceiling by an Aug. 2 deadline.

The White House says Obama isn't expecting to reach an agreement in a round of golf, but he is hoping to improve the state of relations, nurturing what Press Secretary Jay Carney called "the potential for a better atmosphere in the room when important things are discussed and negotiated."

Obama and Boehner have had limited opportunities to improve the atmosphere. The men had almost no personal relationship before Boehner became speaker, and their interactions since have been loaded with political baggage.

To be sure, Obama prefers playing golf as a way to release political pressure. He almost always heads out on Sunday mornings, rarely trading his nine or 18 holes of golf for a more overtly religious endeavor.

On what was perhaps the president's most intense weekend in office — when he had ordered a raid of Osama bin Laden's compound and was waiting for it to launch — Obama went to Andrews Air Force Base for a round.

He was still wearing his khakis and white polo shirt when he went into the White House Situation Room to watch the raid unfold. It was his fifth round in two months.

Obama does enjoy the game. Mark Knoller, a political reporter and savant who tracks virtually every aspect of the presidency that can be numbered, tallied 30 rounds of golf for Obama last year and 28 in 2009.

Despite all the practice, Boehner ranks as the superior golfer. Obama has a 17 handicap, while Boehner carries an index of 7.9, according to Golf Digest magazine, which recently ranked the top 150 best amateur golfers in Washington — largely a list of lobbyists and old-timers.

Both the president and the speaker are bringing a playing partner. Obama invited Vice President Joe Biden, who ranks 29th on the magazine's rankings. (Boehner is tied for 43rd; Obama is tied for 108th.) Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican and close friend of the speaker, completes the foursome.

The White House won't confirm where the group will play, but two of Obama's favorite venues are the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Va., and the Courses at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

Kasich says he's hoping the men will have a chance to laugh and joke around while playing, though congressional staffers close to the competitive Boehner say he will be out to deliver a very civil thumping.

Boehner, who gets out to golf a few times a month, belongs to two private country clubs — Wetherington Golf and Country Club near Cincinnati and Burning Tree Golf and Country Club in Bethesda, Md., where women are not allowed to golf and are, on most occasions, prohibited from the clubhouse.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel had no direct comment on the speaker's opinion on Burning Tree's gender policy. Steel noted that Boehner's wife plays regularly at the Ohio club.

Though Boehner is more likely than Obama to use golf for political purposes — he regularly hosts fundraiser outings — he's also philosophical about the game he loves.

"Listen, playing golf with someone is a great way to get to know someone," Boehner said in a CBS interview last year. "You start trying to hit that little white ball, you can't be somebody that you're not, because all of you shows up."

When Obama plays, his staff does its best to keep it private. The president is rarely photographed golfing, and the reporters who accompany him on outings hardly ever see him hitting a shot.

Conceding that Saturday is no ordinary round, the White House says photographers will get a view of the players — although maybe not an action shot. Carney would not promise to release the score.

cparsons@latimes.com

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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