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Realpolitiking

President Barack Obama looks down the fairway while golfing at Vineyard Golf Club near Lobsterville Beach during his vacation on Martha's Vineyard, Aug. 27, 2009.

Grading the President

As President Obama enters his final days in office, a proper assessment of his tenure requires a variety of measurable, non-political categories: golf, offspring, homebrewing, and more.

Golf

William Howard Taft was the first president known to play golf. According to Don Van Natta Jr., author of First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers, and Cheaters From Taft to Bush, Taft once made the president of Chile wait while he finished a game of golf. Says Van Natta, “[Taft] said it was a chance to get out in nature and get some exercise. He said, ‘I certainly need it: Look at me.’ He really blazed a trail for all the presidential golf nuts to come.”

In 2009, Golf Digest magazine ranked President Obama as the eighth best presidential golfer since Taft (who ranked 11th in the same list). On inauguration day 1913, Taft told Woodrow Wilson, who had won the presidency in 1912, “Mr. President, I hope you’ll be happy here… this is the loneliest place in the world.”

Grade: 8 of 15, or 53 percent, is an “F.” With Obama’s 22 handicap (estimated by Van Natta), that bumps it up to 65 percent, a solid “D.”

 

Offspring

When Barack Obama took office, his daughters, Malia and Sasha, were 10 and seven; today they are 16 and 13. Time magazine named them two of “the 25 most influential teens of 2014,” along with the Little League World Series champion pitcher Mo'ne Davis, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousef, and a number of actors, among others.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, has twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, who were 19 years old when their father became president. Jenna in particular had several run-ins with the law regarding her underage drinking as a student at the University of Texas at Austin, at least one involving Barbara. At the time, People magazine analyzed the national media reaction to the Bush girls’ troubles thusly:

All presidential children share pressures, but the burden may be greatest on those who actually grow up in the White House, like Amy Carter, whose first day of school was covered as a media event, or those who are just beginning to shape their adult lives, such as the Bush twins. Certainly all eyes were on Chelsea Clinton as she walked between her parents, hand in hand as the seeming peacemaker, during the Lewinsky scandal. Historian Gil Troy maintains that the pressures of being a First Child have intensified dramatically over the years. “Today, the scrutiny is relentless,” he says. “It started to become obvious in the ’60s and ’70s, when first the Johnson daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci Baines, and then the Nixon daughters, Tricia and Julie, had to comport themselves as model students.”

The Presidential Pets Museum lists Woodrow Wilson’s pet ram, Old Ike (one of a herd of up to 48 White House sheep), as the most popular presidential pet.

More recently, Jenna Bush told Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live that her first kiss with her now-husband, Henry Hager, happened on the White House roof. The White House Historical Association notes that President Abraham Lincoln’s son Tad once harnessed a pair of goats his father had given him to a chair and “took a ride through the East Room. A group of women from Boston, who had to dodge the goat, were not amused.”

After watching President Obama’s annual pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkeys in 2014, Elizabeth Lauten, then-communications director for Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), posted an open letter to Malia and Sasha on Facebook, criticizing their clothing and demeanor; Lauten resigned from her position soon after. MSNBC cataloged public criticisms of Obama’s daughters throughout his presidency, including from Glenn Beck in 2010, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and pundit Anne Coulter in 2012, and Fox News host Andrea Tantaros and the National Rifle Association in 2013:

In 2010, during the BP oil spill crisis, Glenn Beck mocked Malia for reportedly asking President Obama about the clean-up. “Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?” said Beck, imitating the president’s daughter. “Ask ‘Daddy’ why he ‘hates black people so much.’ … That’s the level of their education, that they’re coming to—they’re coming to Daddy and saying, ‘Daddy, did you plug the hole yet?’”

Along those lines, writing for Mother Jones in 1995, the late Molly Ivins reported the following:

On his TV show, early in the Clinton administration, [pundit Rush] Limbaugh put up a picture of Socks, the White House cat, and asked, “Did you know there’s a White House dog?” Then he put up a picture of Chelsea Clinton, who was 13 years old at the time and as far as I know had never done any harm to anyone.

Following Lauten’s resignation, Politico published Carol Felsenthal’s story on President Theodore Roosevelt’s oldest child, Alice, and the press attention she garnered as a teenager in the White House.

Daily newspapers reported that Alice stood on a railroad platform with a boa constrictor wrapped around her neck, that she had been asked to leave Boston’s Copley Plaza for smoking in the lobby. Reporters covered Alice as if she, not her father, had just become president; her name—“Princess Alice” she was called—and reputation ran amok over front pages in DC, New York and around the country. In a cartoon drawn by the Chicago Tribune’s John McCutcheon, Alice is depicted at a “horse show” at which throngs of spectators, judges, and even the horses themselves peer at Alice in her box while the band plays, “Alice, Where Art Thou?”

To date, there are no similar reports about President Obama’s daughters’ behavior outside the White House.

Grade: “A” for setting a good example; “C-” for lack of tabloid-worthy escapades. (There’s still time to start Vining!) Averaged grade: “B-”

 

President Barack Obama runs away from the family dog, Bo, during a brief break from meetings on the South Lawn of the White House, May 12, 2009.

Pets

In April 2009, the Obama family was given Bo, a Portuguese water dog, by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). According to the President’s 2009 financial statement, Bo, a purebred registered with the American Kennel Club, was worth $1,600.

As a candidate for vice president in 1952, Richard Nixon gave a speech—now known popularly as the “Checkers speech”—confessing that his family dog, a cocker spaniel called Checkers, had been an undeclared gift, but that the Nixon family so adored the dog they could never give him up. (Checkers died before Nixon was elected president.) While running for his second reelection in 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech—now known popularly as the “Fala speech”—in which he criticized a rumor that a Navy ship had had to return to the Aleutian Islands after the president had left behind his Scottish terrier, Fala, during a trip, costing the country millions of dollars; the president called this rumor “libelous” and said that Fala’s “Scotch soul was furious” about the story. In 2013, the Telegraph reported that for the Obamas’ family vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, Bo “arrived separately on one of two MV-22 Ospreys, a hybrid aircraft which takes off like a helicopter but flies like a plane.” Later, Boston Magazine noted:

A White House pool report confirms that Bo was on an MV-22, but adds that the plane also transported White House staff, media, and the Secret Service. In contrast to the spin of several reports, that would suggest the plane was not brought out for the sole purpose of flying the dog to the island. The conservative aggregator website DrudgeReport.com soon linked to the tidbit on Bo, and ahoy, we have a symbol of holiday excess to debate in columns and on cable news for the next week.

To date, Bo has only been mentioned in two speeches: once in then-candidate Obama’s 2008 victory speech, when the president told his daughters that “You have earned the puppy that is coming with us,” and once in the president’s 2012 victory speech, when he again addressed his daughters, saying, “I will say that for now, one dog’s probably enough.”

The Presidential Pets Museum lists Woodrow Wilson’s pet ram, Old Ike (one of a herd of up to 48 White House sheep), as the most popular presidential pet. The ram was known to chew tobacco and charge staff and police, and President Wilson eventually sent him to live in Maryland. (After some research, this does not appear to be a euphemism for euthanasia.) President Thomas Jefferson kept mockingbirds and was particularly enamored of one, whom he called Dick. Dick was given free range of Jefferson’s office, and according to Jefferson’s friend, early American historian Margaret Bayard Smith, the bird would often perch on the president’s shoulder, and the president would feed him from his own lips. Caroline Kennedy’s pony, Macaroni, was so beloved, Life magazine published its Sept. 7, 1962, issue with a photograph of he and Caroline on the cover with the caption, “On Her Pony Macaroni: The Fun of Being Caroline Kennedy.”

Four years after Bo joined the family, the Obamas adopted Sunny, another Portuguese water dog of unknown origins, though New York magazine’s Daily Intelligencer blog speculates that she came from Allegiance PWDs, a breeding facility in Michigan. It is not known how much Sunny cost; unlike Bo, she was not declared on the president’s financial disclosure form.

Grade: “B” for boring, if practical. Two of the same breed of dog? Did anyone even ask Sasha if she wanted a pony (or three)?

 

Swimsuits

In 2013, BuzzFeed News published a collection of photographs of US presidents wearing swimsuits, under the title “Which President Looks Sexiest in a Swimsuit?” The author (who was fired in July 2014 for plagiarism, though not for work on this post) did not arrive at a conclusion, though he does speculate that Barack Obama “might be the most photographed topless president ever.”

Grade: “A” for keeping it tight while running the country.

 

Close-up detail of President Obama's signature on a bill, and a pen used for the signing, aboard Air Force One on a flight from Buckley Air Force Base, Denver to Phoenix, Feb. 17, 2009.

Pens

To date, the most pens used by a president to sign a bill is 75, a record set by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 while signing the Civil Rights Act. President Obama’s high-pen point sits at 22, which he used to sign the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010. In “All the President’s Pens,” a White House informational video on the subject, then-Staff Secretary Lisa Brown prepares these 22 pens for President Obama’s use.

Grade: “C” for not setting any pen-use records; “A” for not smearing the bills up while signing them left-handed. Averaged grade: “B.”

 

Handedness

The Washington Post, in a July 2008 article, noted that of the 12 presidents who have served since World War II, half have been left-handed: Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Thomas Jefferson was not left-handed, though he did legibly write a letter with his left hand after breaking his right wrist in 1786.

Presidential hand dominance is of such debate that there is a Wikipedia page devoted to it, titled “Handedness of the Presidents of the United States.” The page asserts that “The handedness of presidents of the United States is difficult to establish with any certainty before recent decades. During the 18th and 19th centuries left-handedness was considered a disability and teachers would make efforts to suppress it in their students. For this reason there are few concrete references to determine the handedness of presidents prior to the early 20th century.”

Speculation on Catholic.com forums cite John 18:10—“Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus.”—as evidence that Peter, the first pope of the Catholic church, was left-handed. No other pope has been observed to be left-hand dominant.

Grade: “B” for conventionality within the sample size.

 

President Barack Obama, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Sergeant James Crowley toast at the start of their meeting in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 30, 2009.

Beer

President Obama likes beer. After saying Cambridge police had acted “stupidly” in their 2009 arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates while he was trying to enter his own home, to quell the subsequent heated national discussion about racism in policing, the president hosted a “beer summit” with Gates, arresting officer Sergeant James Crowley, and Vice President Joe Biden. The president drank Bud Light.

In 2011, President Obama bought a home-brewing kit for the White House kitchen. Home-brewing kits have only been legal since 1979, after President Jimmy Carter signed HR 1337, which exempted beer brewed at home for personal use from taxation and made the practice legal again, which it had not been since the Volstead Act created Prohibition in 1919—its 1933 repeal had made home winemaking legal, but not beer brewing. The White House kitchen staff created original recipes for honey ale and honey porter, using honey from the beehive on the South Lawn (the first beehive on the White House grounds), and published them in September 2012. These were the first alcoholic beverages brewed at the White House.

Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were avid brewers as well, but never at the White House. Washington reportedly used molasses in his small beer recipe. President James Madison proposed creating a national brewery and adding the Secretary of Beer to the cabinet. A 2004 Zogby/Williams Identity Poll found that “57 percent of undecided voters would rather have a beer with [President George W. Bush] than [that year’s Democratic presidential nominee, John] Kerry.” Bush, a onetime binge drinker who has not had a beer since getting sober in 1986, won that election with 50.73 percent of the popular vote.

After the Canadian hockey team beat the US team in the 2010 Olympics gold medal game, President Obama settled a bet with Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper with a case of Molson, a Canadian beer. Harper, despite rumors to the contrary, also enjoys beer.

Grade: “A” for effort; “D” for drinking Bud Light.

 

Races Lost Before Winning

In 2000, during Barack Obama’s second term as an Illinois state senator, he mounted an unsuccessful challenge to incumbent US Representative Bobby Rush in the Democratic primary for Illinois’s first district; the 30-point loss was Obama’s only electoral defeat.

In 1978, George W. Bush lost his race to represent Texas’s 19th district by eight points to his Democratic opponent, then-state Sen. Kent Hance, who held the seat until 1985. It was George W. Bush’s only electoral defeat.

Losing exactly one race in your entire political career seems pretty incredible, except when you compare it other presidents, at which point you become entirely average.

Bill Clinton lost three races before being elected president: the first, in 1967, for student council president at Georgetown University; the second, in 1974, against incumbent US Rep. Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt, in Arkansas’s third district; and the third, in 1980, as incumbent governor of Arkansas, against Republican challenger Frank White.

George H.W. Bush lost three races before being elected president: the first, in 1964, for US Senate in Texas against incumbent Democratic Sen. Ralph Yarborough; the second, in 1970, again to represent Texas in the US Senate, against Democratic challenger Lloyd Bentsen (who had defeated the incumbent in the primary); and the third against Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Republican presidential primary.

Ronald Reagan unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. It was Reagan’s only electoral defeat.

Jimmy Carter lost one race before being elected president: the 1966 Democratic primary for governor of Georgia.

Gerald Ford did not lose any races before becoming president in 1974, following the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Richard Nixon lost two races before being elected president: the 1960 presidential campaign against Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy, and the 1962 California gubernatorial contest against incumbent Democrat Pat Brown.

Lyndon Johnson lost two races before becoming president: a 1941 special election for one of Texas’s US senate seats against Democratic Governor W. Lee “Pappy” Daniel, and the 1960 Democratic presidential primary against Sen. John F. Kennedy.

John F. Kennedy never suffered electoral defeat, though he was unsuccessful in his bid to be named Adlai Stevenson’s vice presidential running mate in 1956.

Grade: “C+.” Losing exactly one race in your entire political career seems pretty incredible, except when you compare it to other presidents, at which point you become entirely average.

 

President Barack Obama makes Thanksgiving Day phone calls to US troops, from the Oval Office, Nov. 27, 2014.

Averaged Presidential Performance Grade for the 44th US President in All Categories:

“B-”