Defensiveness is part of the baggage as media coverage intensifies attention.
It is a paradox of American politics: The more common vacations became after World War II — a tradition for the working class and the wealthy alike — the more criticism presidents have faced for taking them.
So as President Barack Obama and his family enjoy their second annual August vacation at an isolated farm on Martha's Vineyard, defensiveness is again part of the baggage.
“Whenever you talk about a presidential vacation, you ought to put the word ‘vacation' in quotes because you can bet that there will still be work that he's doing every day,” Bill Burton, who came along as the “vacation” press secretary, told reporters before the Obamas' 10-day visit.
That is why the President's entourage of Secret Service agents, communications specialists and military aides includes John O. Brennan, Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser, who wore a suit and tie on a sunny day at Vineyard Haven, Mass. recently to take questions from more casually dressed reporters (“I don't do down time,” he deadpanned). Brennan has been briefing the President daily on the latest intelligence and remains in touch with Washington when Obama spends five hours on the golf course, as he did recently.
“If there were to be some type of event that would require immediate engagement with the President,” Brennan said, “I am certain I can do it as quickly as I could do back in Washington.”
Yet for a modern president, far more than for average Americans, there never seems to be a good time to vacation.
Round-the-clock news coverage and the Internet have intensified attention on a president's every move, and blogging has multiplied the numbers, and the reach, of critics.
Through history, many presidents have stayed away from Washington for long periods with little notice. Abraham Lincoln, contending with a civil war, spent about a quarter of his presidency at a cottage outside the city. Franklin D. Roosevelt did not let a Depression or war keep him from fishing trips.
That changed after World War II, with the dawn of the television age. Dwight D. Eisenhower was lampooned for his frequent golfing, especially amid recession in 1958. Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were mocked for retreating to their ranches often. Bill Clinton was ridiculed for hobnobbing with the rich and famous on Martha's Vineyard for seven of his eight summer vacations (the exception was the time he took a supposedly more plebeian sojourn out West on the advice of a political adviser).
As he was last August, Obama is especially vulnerable to the critics' rap about the timing of his leisure, coming amid two wars and continued high unemployment. Earlier this month, Michelle Obama drew criticism unusual for a first lady when she took a trip to Spain with her daughter Sasha.
The First Family's visit to Mass. coincides with the official end of combat operations in Iraq. While unemployment is stuck at more than nine per cent, this time last summer it was heading upward toward a 10.2 per cent peak in October. But such progress is far too small for the administration to claim much political credit as the midterm elections approach.
Obama's job-approval rating has fallen below 50 per cent and Democrats are in danger of losing control of Congress.
“I would say the difference between last year's vacation and this year's is that since his vacation, the automotive industry is back on its feet, health care reform has passed and the economy is now moving in a different direction than it was moving in before,” Burton said.
While one woman gave Obama's motorcade a two-thumbs-down salute when he arrived Thursday, the reception has been welcoming on an island that gave him about three-quarters of its vote. Many Vineyarders — in shops and restaurants, on the beach and at an agricultural fair — were as defensive as administration aides about his visit here.
A big sign on a hotel dominating Main Street read:
Mansion House Inn Believes Anyone Who Has
Passed Health Care Reform
Signed Economic Stimulus Bills
Recast America's Global Image
Commands Two War Zones
Won the Nobel Peace Prize
Named 2 Supreme Court Judges
Overhauled Financial Regulations
DESERVES A GREAT VACATION!
Thank You Mr. President.
Michelle Obama's visit
As with Michelle Obama's visit to Spain, criticism of the Obamas' vacation focuses on the perceived extravagance when so many Americans are out of work. The Vacation White House is a renovated Victorian on Blue Heron Farm, a 28-acre expanse with a guesthouse, pool, basketball court, golf practice tee and beach access.
Purchased for more than $20 million by a wealthy Republican donor from Mississippi, the farm is said to rent for $35,000 to $50,000 a week — an expense the Obamas are covering personally, the White House said.
Details about pricey vacation rentals were a non-issue for past presidents who owned easily secured getaways — John F. Kennedy's Cape Cod compound; the Johnson Ranch; Reagan's Rancho del Cielo in California's Santa Ynez Mountains; President George H.W. Bush's Kennebunkport spread on Maine's shore; and the second Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
For Obama, the criticism is as much about where he is vacationing as it is about the fact that he is vacationing. The critics, and some Democrats, have said that the President should have gone to the Gulf Coast for 10 days — not just for an overnight visit, as the family recently did — to make good on his own advice to come to the coast, unsullied in the wake of the BP oil spill.
The Republican National Committee, playing off the perception that Obama is always taking time off, called him “the Clark Griswold president,” for the hapless character played by Chevy Chase in the “Vacation” movies.
Counting the time here, Obama will have vacationed for 48 days as president, or nearly seven weeks, according to Mark Knoller, a long-time White House correspondent for CBS News who keeps records on the vacation days of presidents.
At this point in his presidency, George W. Bush was midway through a 27-day sojourn at his Crawford ranch that would bring his time there to 115 days — or more than 16 weeks. — © New York Times News Service