President Obama will be taking two breaks from his official duties over the next few weeks. On August 14, he and his family are scheduled to visit Florida's Gulf Coast for the weekend to get some R&R and show the country that the region is still open for business despite the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The Obamas will start their main summer vacation on August 19 when they go to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, an elite island retreat, for 10 days. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
But Obama won't be given a holiday from criticism, including attacks on his vacation itself. In fact, targeting a president over his vacation habits has become a summertime ritual in Washington. No matter who is the president, the opposition party delights in criticizing him for taking time off, billing it as insensitive to the problems of struggling Americans, demonstrating aristocratic excess, or betraying some hedonistic character flaw. [Read 10 Things You Didn't Know About Martha's Vineyard.]
Obama got a taste of what's ahead when he took wife Michelle and daughters Sasha and Malia on a brief getaway to Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor, on Mount Desert Island in Maine, over the weekend of July 16-19. The first family went hiking, biking, and boating, and the president and the first lady went out for dinner on one of their regular "date nights."
But the getaway didn't sit well with the president's critics. Doug Heye, communications director for the Republican National Committee, says GOP leaders don't object to Obama going on vacation, but they are troubled by his "casual, lackadaisical approach" to the presidency. "We are concerned because as the oil was spilling from the well into the Gulf of Mexico, he was on the golf course time and time again," Heye says. RNC researchers say Obama has played at least 40 rounds of golf since taking office 18 months ago. "The American people are tired of seeing the president on the golf course or at a concert when they are out of work," says Heye.
The visit to Acadia was Obama's third break since the oil disaster began in April. The RNC even started a website attacking what it said were Obama's "leisure activities or missteps" during the environmental mess, which included time on the links, attending entertainment shows, and making vacationlike visits to Asheville, N.C., Chicago, and Maine.
Critics got more ammunition when Michelle Obama went on a mother-daughter retreat with 9-year-old Sasha to an expensive resort at the Spanish beach town of Marbella for four nights. Marbella is known as a playground for the rich (though its reputation has suffered due to overbuilding, an influx of ostentatious gangsters, and a growing sleaze factor).
This may be bad optics and convey the impression that the president and the first lady are insensitive to the average person's concerns. But White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer says that Americans understand that the president and first lady need time to "unwind." Besides, Pfeiffer says, no president can truly escape the job since there are still daily briefings on national security and the economy, and there are often ongoing policy discussions that inject official business into the president's private time.
Just as important, there is a long history of crises interrupting presidential vacations. President George W. Bush had to deal with Hurricane Katrina during a vacation at his Texas ranch in late summer 2005. Bill Clinton ordered air strikes against al Qaeda terrorists in the middle of his time at Martha's Vineyard in August 1998. George H.W. Bush was at his oceanfront retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine, when he planned the American response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. A year later, Bush had to deal with an attempted coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991. And, of course, there was Harry Truman cutting short his trip to Independence, Mo., in June 1950 to organize international opposition to North Korea's invasion of South Korea.
With that kind of history of disrupted vacations, it's a wonder that a president can relax at all. That's why all the criticism generally doesn't make much difference to most Americans. As I pointed out in my 2005 book about presidential retreats and hideaways, From Mount Vernon to Crawford, if Americans believe a president is serious about his duties and works hard, they don't begrudge him a vacation. Americans are basically fair-minded and practical, and they know that everyone, including the commander in chief, deserves a break.