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For Obama, August Is The Cruelest Month

President Obama plays golf on the island of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts on Thursday.
Steven Senne
President Obama plays golf on the island of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts on Thursday.

President Obama returns to Washington this weekend after a two-week family vacation.

It wasn't exactly restful. The break was interrupted several times by events in Iraq and in Ferguson, Mo.

On Wednesday, Obama raised eyebrows by hitting the golf course, minutes after delivering a tough statement on the murder of an American journalist by militants from the Islamic State.

You know it's bad is when even the French are criticizing you for taking too much time off.

French Foreign Minster Laurent Fabius was one of many who took President Obama to task this week for playing golf in the aftermath of journalist Jim Foley's murder. At a press briefing on Martha's Vineyard Friday, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said he wouldn't discuss the president's mindset. But, Schultz added, sports and leisure can be a good way to clear the mind.

"I understand that you're asking about the optics. First and foremost, the president is focused on doing his job. And I don't think anyone in this room who's been covering this or following the president for the past few weeks could deny that the president's been deeply engaged on issues both domestic and abroad."

According to a tally kept by CBS news reporter Mark Knoller, Obama will have spent a total of 140 days on vacation by the time he returns to Washington on Sunday. By comparison, George W. Bush had taken nearly three times as much vacation at the same point in his term.

There's no question it's been an awkward time to be away from the capital, with fighting in Ukraine and Gaza as well as Iraq and Missouri. But there's never really been a relaxing August since Obama became president.

In 2009, there were angry protests over the health care bill. The next year was supposed to be "Recovery Summer." But as political adviser David Axelrod said in August 2010, unemployment remained stubbornly high.

"There are still 15 million people looking for jobs. There's still a great deal of uncertainty," he said then.

And in August 2011, brinksmanship over the budget knocked a hole in the U.S. credit rating. "It shouldn't take the risk of default, the risk of economic catastrophe to get folks in this town to work together and to do their jobs," said Obama at the time.

Public perception of Obama's job performance has consistently suffered during the summer. Gallup pollster Frank Newport says it typically bottoms out around this time of year.

"August was his worst month through the first five years of his administration. The so-called 'summer slump,' " he said.

That's not altogether surprising. Newport notes the last two presidents, Bush and Clinton, also saw their lowest poll numbers during the summer.

"There is some possibility that since Congress is out of session and presidents go on vacation, maybe they get lower ratings because there's not much going on that would cause Americans to boost their ratings up," he said.

Obama's swoon this summer has actually been less pronounced than in previous years. But not because more people approve of the job he's doing now. It's just that he was in an even deeper slump back in January.

So far this month, the president's approval rating has averaged just 42 percent, his lowest August rating since 2011. If there's any bright side for Obama and his fellow Democrats, this long, hot summer will come to an end. And Newport notes the president's numbers have tended to rebound soon after Labor Day.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

All Things Considered
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.