President Obama has decided to postpone his Christmas vacation in Hawaii until the Senate passes a massive healthcare bill this week. That means Obama will probably head west aboard Air Force One a day later than planned, because the Senate is scheduled to vote on the legislation tomorrow morning.
Based on the history of presidential vacations, Obama's move was a wise one. Americans understand their leader's need to escape periodically from the pressures of office, but they don't want the president to take off when there is pressing business to attend to. "I will not leave until my friends in the Senate have completed their work," Obama told reporters yesterday. "My attitude is if they are making these sacrifices to provide healthcare to all Americans, the least I can do is be around and provide them any encouragement and last-minute help."
Presidents have felt a need to escape from the routines and pressures of office from the start of the republic, when George Washington returned to his beloved home at Mount Vernon, Va., as often as he could. As with virtually all of his successors, Washington was eager for normalcy and a break from what he considered the abnormal atmosphere of the capital.
John Adams, the second president, spent eight months at his home in Quincy, Mass., in 1799, triggering criticism that he was abandoning his duties. But Adams felt the time in Quincy improved his health and refreshed him in many ways. Thomas Jefferson didn't leave the White House for such an extended period, but he did follow Washington's pattern by returning to his home at Monticello, Va., every few months for a few weeks at a time.
George W. Bush spent 490 days over the course of his eight-year presidency at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he found comfort in the company of family and friends and in the physical labor of clearing brush and doing other chores outdoors. And of course, Ronald Reagan greatly enjoyed his ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif. Reagan spent the entire month of August there every summer of his eight-year presidency, and he visited the ranch on many other occasions.
But crisis doesn't take a holiday, and presidents are often called upon to make important decisions while on vacation. In August 1990, President George H.W. Bush dealt with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait while vacationing at his seaside estate in Kennebunkport, Maine. A year later, he organized international reaction to an attempted coup against then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, again while Bush was vacationing in Kennebunkport.
In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt helped mediate the end of the Russo-Japanese war from his home at Sagamore Hill, N.Y. And during the 1940s, Franklin D. Roosevelt and British leader Winston Churchill spent many hours at FDR's home in Hyde Park, N.Y., planning the development and use of atomic weapons in World War II.
As for Obama, he plans to spend more than a week in Hawaii, where he was raised as a boy and teenager. He will mostly be in seclusion with family and friends, aides say. Obama is expected to stay at a rented beachfront house in Kailua, where he vacationed last year.
Obama's critics will probably attack him for spending too much taxpayers' money on the Air Force One flights to and from Hawaii and on security, communications, and other expenses. He is also likely to be criticized for taking an extended holiday during the recession, when millions of Americans are unemployed or are hurting economically. But similar criticisms were directed at Obama's predecessors, including George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan, and it didn't deter them from escaping from the White House whenever they felt they needed to. The same is likely to hold true for Obama.
Kenneth T. Walsh is the chief White House correspondent for U.S. News and author of From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats.