Vacation barbs the least of Obama's issues as he returns to DC

The bad news for President Barack Obama, as he returns to work in Washington on Monday after a two-week vacation, is all around—armed conflict in Europe and the Middle East, unhappy voters and declining influence at home.

The good news is that one permanent hazing ritual of the American presidency is taking a break. That's because Obama's vacation is over.

The ritual is criticism of the presidentfrom the media, political opponents and sometimes political alliesfor setting aside the demands of the Oval Office to indulge in recreation. It persists because the world's highest-profile job comes with a nonstop supply of crises and problems to respond to, as well as news coverage of whatever the president is doing.

Ronald Reagan heard it for riding his horse at his California ranch. George H.W. Bush for riding his speedboat in Maine. Bill Clinton for attending glitzy parties on Martha's Vineyard. George W. Bush got it for trips to his Texas ranch. For the last two weeks, Obama has gotten it for playing golfmost conspicuously on the same day he decried the videotaped execution by jihadists of American journalist James Foley.

Congress gets a minor league version of the same treatment for its annual summer recess. But cameras rarely follow lawmakers when they're away from Washington.

What these critiques have in common is that they have nothing to do with the problems that ostensibly inspire them. Congress' failure to act on corporate tax reform or a new immigration system results from the structural impediments of our political systemnot the fact that the House and Senate leave Washington for the month of August. Obama's reluctance to launch a more aggressive military response to ISIS stems from his desire to avoid a full-scale renewal of the Iraq Warnot the fact that he spent vacation afternoons on the golf course.

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Aides to every occupant of the Oval Office respond to critics that the job of a president never stops, that the chief executive remains in constant contact with advisors, that the soul-crushing, life-and-death responsibilities make occasional relief and respite mandatory. They are right.

Barack Obama
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images
Barack Obama

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.

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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