By Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton
EDGARTOWN Mass./WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As Barack Obama discovered over the past two weeks, presidents can run into trouble when their playtime is perceived as detached from the concerns of Americans.
Obama returns to Washington on Sunday faced with having to repair some of the dings to his reputation after he came under fierce criticism for playing golf amid smoldering crises involving Islamic State militants, racial unrest in Missouri, a Chinese plane's altercation with an American aircraft over Japan, and renewed violence in Ukraine.
"Perception is reality, and it takes a long, sustained effort to change perception," said Dana Perino, a former press secretary for President George W. Bush.
Inevitably it happens with every president in the modern era. George H.W. Bush was seen as out of touch by rocketing around the waters off the coast of Maine in a pricey speedboat while the country faced an economic slowdown.
George W. Bush's 2002 golf course declaration to reporters to "watch this drive" after delivering a tough statement about terrorism led to widespread scorn, and he ultimately gave up the game for the rest of his term in office to avoid controversy.
Bill Clinton drew criticism too for hanging out with the wealthy summer set on Martha's Vineyard at a time when he was trying to connect with ordinary Americans.
"It's the kind of trouble presidents usually get themselves into," said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
For Obama, his nine rounds of golf over the course of two weeks on Martha's Vineyard, about five hours per round, demonstrated his need to let off some steam from the white-hot political polarization of Washington ahead of a looming partisan battle over new immigration rules he will soon issue.
But his decision to go ahead with a round with former NBA star Alonzo Mourning last Wednesday, minutes after delivering a heartfelt statement about the beheading of American journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamic State militants, has been front-page news.
It is further trouble for a president whose public approval rating is hovering around 40 percent, in what is a worrisome sign for Democrats ahead of congressional elections in November.
The criticism has come mostly from Republicans, who are complaining about everything Obama does in this election year, but some Democrats were also chagrined at the image of the president laughing it up behind the wheel of his golf cart moments after his Foley remarks.
Obama's defenders say the controversy is much ado about nothing, that the president was able to do his job capably and never really is on vacation. Over the course of the last two weeks, he gave four public statements, including a news conference when he returned to the White House for two days a week ago.
“I think this whole discussion of optics is something that fascinates Washington. It really doesn’t fascinate the American people," said David Plouffe, an informal Obama adviser, on ABC's "This Week."
But other political experts see Obama's vacation in the context of a struggling second-term president whose influence could be reduced further if Republicans wrest control of the Senate in congressional elections in November.
Would the president have been better served spending those five hours consulting with advisers about how to confront the threat from the Islamic State? Some of the criticism aimed his way is that he does not have a broad strategy for confronting the militant group.
"I don't think anybody begrudges the president a break from the action but when really serious things happen in the world I think a lot of Americans want to see the president engaged and concerned, not just going through the motions of it," said Merle Black, a political scholar at Emory University in Atlanta.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Andrea Ricci)