Sometimes the juxtaposition of recreation and tragedy is especially jarring. That happened last week after the gruesome murder of Foley. Even some close Obama allies cringed, wishing the president had at least relaxed with his family in private rather than hopping in a golf cart while smiling for the cameras.
Presidential leadership is about style as well as substance. Obama heeds that reality selectively, embracing the imagery he values and rejecting that demanded by the press or opponents as "theater." The criticism he received the last two weeks represents a price he has chosen to pay.
Read MoreTime has come for Obama to start worrying about his critics again
It resonates more in political Washington than among American voters. Partisan polarization within the electorate limits how high presidents can rise in public esteem anymore, but also how low they can fall. If Obama's approval rating hasn't hit bottom yet, it's close to the bottom. There's little reason to expect much more erosion from his loyal political base, which instinctively rejects the idea that the lame-duck, second-term president is beginning to disconnect from the job.
The irony is that Obama's return to work in Washington will highlight a far bigger question mark about his commitment than any vacation.
Obama has proclaimed 2014 a "year of action," and has set out to use executive authority to implement energy and immigration policies in the absence of congressional action. Yet the frustrated, mocking rhetoric and tone he has used in deriding Republican adversaries in the legislative branch has even some of his friends wondering whether he has abandoned attempts to seek progress on Capitol Hill.
The gridlock he has encountered since the Democrats' 2010 midterm election defeat makes his exasperation understandable. But if he has stopped trying altogether, that matters more than any time spent on the golf course.
—By CNBC's John Harwood