When a president goes on vacation, it almost always triggers criticism that he is goofing off, wasting the taxpayers' money, and showing insensitivity to the less fortunate. That's about to happen to President Obama.
White House officials announced today that starting next Thursday he will take a 10-day vacation at Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts where many rich and famous people enjoy the sun and seashore.
"I don't think Americans out there would begrudge that notion that the president would spend some time with his family, " White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters this afternoon. He added: "There's no such thing as a presidential vacation. The presidency travels with you. He will be in constant communication and get regular briefings from his national security team as well as his economic team."
All that is true. But Obama's vacation comes at a difficult time for the country, with the stock market tanking, Congress struggling to cut the deficit, and millions of Americans out of work. Obama has complicated his own situation by calling for shared sacrifice and urging Congress to work harder to find a budget compromise.
Carney was peppered with skeptical questions at his briefing today by reporters who wondered if the president was sending the wrong message by taking off at such a crucial time. And, if the past is a guide, Obama's political opponents will escalate the criticism in the next few days.
In researching my 2005 book From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats, I concluded that most Americans are sympathetic to the need of presidents to take a break from Washington. Where presidents get into trouble is when they seem to be indulging themselves at play while their fellow citizens are enduring hardship. That's the situation that Obama may find himself in when he visits Martha's Vineyard.
As a result, it's likely that he'll pay particular attention to the "optics," perhaps limiting photos of him on the golf course or at the beach, and arranging events such as a speech or an official visit or two to show that he isn't ducking his responsibilities.