The President, the Speaker and 18 Holes of Golf

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(l to r): Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images, UPI / Landov

President Barack Obama, left, at the Mid Pacific Country Club in Kailua, Hawaii, December 28, 2010 and House Speaker John Boehner at the Congressional Country Club in Potomac, Maryland, July 1, 2009.

President Obama’s Chief of Staff William Daley called his counterpart in House Speaker John Boehner’s office last month to ask if the Speaker and a partner might be free for a round of golf on Saturday, June 18. In the six months since former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs first proposed a golf outing for the two politicians, neither man had made it a priority to find the time. The President savors his golf– one of the few ways he can walk freely outside without a battalion of Secret Service – and usually limits his foursome to close aides and friends: no business allowed. And the Speaker has hardly been anxious to be seen by the Tea Party – and his freshmen – buddying up with the guy they consider the enemy. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that it’s only now, two-and-a-half years into Obama’s presidency and six months into Boehner’s speakership, that they are finally hitting the links.

Saturday’s game serves as the unofficial start of the final round of negotiations to raise the debt ceiling. Round one ended minutes before the government shutdown in April. Boehner won $34.5 billion in cuts to the 2011 budget. This time, things are going to be infinitely more difficult. While the relationship between Obama and Boehner is more important than ever, the truth is, it’s not easy to get to know someone surrounded by 20 staffers in the Oval Office or through a handful of phone calls. In hitting the links, they might find out they have more in common than they think.

Boehner is famous for his hideous swing: a backhand waggle he picked up when he switched from hitting lefty to righty nearly 30 years ago. “If you play with him, you can’t watch him swing,” Cincinnati businessman Jerry Vanden Eynden, a lifelong friend, told the Associated Press. It’s ugly, but it gets the jobs done: Boehner’s got a 7.9 handicap and is one of the best golfers in Washington. Obama, meanwhile, is new to the game – taking it up regularly only after he became President and found it was a great escape from his protective bubble. He has an estimated 17 handicap and, staff says, isn’t planning to win when he plays with Boehner. As Politico’s Glenn Thrush points out, rare video footage shows Obama has similar hitch in his backhand – causing his head to pull up and the ball to dart of course. Perhaps Boehner can give the President tips.

In basketball, a game he’s been playing all his life, Obama is a relentless teaser. He mocks his teammates for bad shots and fouls. In golf, a game in which Boehner is supremely confident, he has a similar attitude. “There is a lot razzing. When you make a bad shot we tend to make some smart aleck comment to each other,” says Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican and one of Boehner’s closest friends. “But if you hit a nice shot, he’s quick to compliment.”

And then there is the question of tobacco. Boehner, an infamous chain smoker, likes to light up during golf. Obama has been trying to quit. So, will the President allow Boehner a cigarette or two during the match? “I’m sure that the President will be a fine host,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Thursday. “I don’t foresee a problem.” No doubt, the paparazzi are drooling at the thought Obama might sneak a puff in with Boehner.

Both men are intensely competitive, even if it’s just for bragging rights. “I wouldn’t golf with [Boehner] – he’s too competitive,” says Rep. Pat Tiberi, a Ohio Republican and another Boehner buddy. Boehner is a stickler for the rules. He once played with former President Bill Clinton who merrily cheated throughout the game. Boehner was outraged and complained about it for years. In fact, Boehner rarely deems to play with friends who aren’t up to snuff. “I’m not good enough golfer to golf with him – he won’t let me,” says former Ohio Republican Rep. Dave Hobson, a close friend of Boehner’s.

Boehner has spent decades on the country club circuits, milking fat cat donors. In fact, he holds four fundraising tournaments a year across the country. For Boehner, golfing is as much a part of politics as legislating. And to hear his staff tell it, he gets his George Hamilton tan from all those hours on the links. Certainly, Saturday’s game involves more business than Obama is used to on the greens. Obama chose Vice President Joe Biden as his golfing partner and Boehner chose Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Biden is leading the debt ceiling negotiations and Kasich was the head of the Budget Committee in the late 1990’s when Clinton and Gingrich balanced the budget. Will the foursome solve the deficit crisis over 18 rounds? Not likely. But Obama and Boehner have proven that successful negotiation in Washington happens at the top. Saturday’s game is a swing in the right direction.