President Barack Obama is hardly the consummate Western outdoorsman.
The Marlboro Man he’s not.
He’s spent his adult life in big cities – New York, Chicago and, now, Washington. Basketball, golf, and bodysurfing are how this jock rolls. Indoor daily gym workouts of cardio exercise and weight training are the norm. Hunting, climbing, rafting – not so much.
Yet there he was on a summer weekend, enthusiastically soaking in America’s vast wilderness. He toured Yellowstone National Park, checking out Old Faithful, and then set his sights on the Grand Canyon, where he hiked Aug. 16. He cast a fly while fishing in a Montana river.
“Oh, that’s pretty good. Cool! Look at that. That’s a geyser there,” Obama said Aug. 15 as the first family watched the world’s most famous geyser erupt. Earlier, the Obama entourage traipsed across wooden walkways in the steamy Black Sand Basin, a brilliant-hued hydrothermal spot in the park dotted with hot springs, geysers, mudpots and fumaroles.
With the wonders of his country at his disposal, Obama did things that might seem a little out of his comfort zone. It’s safe to say that this Hawaiian-born president has spent more time on beaches and in cities than he has in the mountains of the West.
After the weekend at the Grand Canyon, he went to Phoenix for a speech to veterans at the downtown Convention Center. The speech was to begin at 11 a.m. Hundreds of people rallied prior to his speech, clogging downtown streets to support and protest against his health care plan.
But this is also a guy who clearly has a zest for recreation and a curiosity about the diverse nation he governs. He seems game for trying just about any sport or activity. He seems intent on broadening his kids’ interests and, perhaps, his own.
So it was of little wonder then that he brought his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha, as well as other relatives, including half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng and her young family, on a trip that was part family vacation, part policy promotion.
He held town hall style events to plug his efforts to overhaul health care. In Belgrade, Mont., he opened with this comment: “Here in Montana you’ve got bears and moose and elk. In Washington, you have mostly bull. So this is a nice change of pace!”
Obama chuckled at the line. But he clearly was at his happiest when he shed his typical dark business-suit for casual wear and some quality time with his family.
He was in jovial spirits from the moment he bounded up the Air Force One stairs at the start of his trip, mock-racing his youngest daughter to the top. In sneakers and a light jacket, he appeared to relish his role as a father as he treated the girls to ice cream at a Yellowstone general store and showed them sites he saw on first trip to the mainland when at age 11, his mother, grandmother and half-sister visited national parks, including Yosemite and Yellowstone.
As he tended to presidential duties this weekend, his wife and daughters spent 90 minutes whitewater rafting in rain and, at times, hail in Montana and went peach-picking in Colorado, bringing some back for travelers on Air Force One.
“He wants very much to see and share the outdoors and some of the beautiful places in the country with his daughters,” press secretary Robert Gibbs said. “He’s always tremendously enjoyed being outside with his family.”
Since taking office in January, the first family has spent as much time as possible Camp David, the presidential retreat near Thurmont, Md. Obama has reminisced about riding bikes along the lakeshore in Chicago with his children before the presidential campaign made such private moments impossible.
For decades, politicians, and particularly Democrats, have staged events – think Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in duck-hunting camouflage in 2004 – to show the public they’re on the side of outdoorsmen, who tend to be more conservative because of support for gun rights and wariness of the federal government’s reach.
Obama refrained from such moments during the campaign. He was known to shun attempts by his advisers to make him to do things that appeared overtly political and were intended to win over specific constituencies such as hunters and anglers.
Things didn’t turn out so well, for example, when he bowled in blue-collar Pennsylvania only to be dogged by his dismal score.
Reporters and photographers were shielded from some of Obama’s weekend recreational activities, including his fly fishing experience that advisers called a private event.
In the East Gallatin River near a private residence, Obama spent about two hours in pouring rain and unseasonably chilly temperatures, making good on a campaign promise to learn how to fly fish when he returned to Montana. Locals called it perfect catch-and-release weather.
How’d he do?
Fishing guide Dan Vermillion, who runs the Sweetwater Fly Shop in Livingston, Mont., reported that Obama hooked half a dozen fish but he didn’t land any.
But Gibbs, who accompanied Obama, was less diplomatic: “Not as well as he wanted. He was a bit frustrated.”