Barack Obama's (Lack of) Christmas 'Vacation'

As is customary, a president's vacation plans have been delayed amid criticism.

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President Barack Obama sings a Christmas song with daughters Malia and Sasha, first lady Michelle Obama, actor Neil Patrick Harris, and Rico Rodriguez during the annual lighting of the national Christmas tree, Dec. 6, 2012.
President Barack Obama sings a Christmas song with daughters Malia and Sasha, first lady Michelle Obama, actor Neil Patrick Harris, and Rico Rodriguez during the annual lighting of the national Christmas tree, Dec. 6, 2012.

Another Washington ritual is about to begin — bashing the president for leaving town on vacation.

President Obama had been planning to take his family to Hawaii over the holidays, as he has done for years. But the press of business, especially budget negotiations, has thrown these plans into limbo.

Now Obama is expected to remain in Washington while his wife Michelle and their daughters Malie and Sasha head for the sunny Aloha State where Obama grew up and where he feels very much at home. He hopes to join them later.

Obama didn't take a scheduled summer vacation at Martha's Vineyard this year so he could devote his time to campaigning for re-election, and his friends say he needs some R&R.

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President Barack Obama sings a Christmas song with daughters Malia and Sasha, first lady Michelle Obama, actor Neil Patrick Harris, and Rico Rodriguez during the annual lighting of the national Christmas tree, Dec. 6, 2012.
President Barack Obama sings a Christmas song with daughters Malia and Sasha, first lady Michelle Obama, actor Neil Patrick Harris, and Rico Rodriguez during the annual lighting of the national Christmas tree, Dec. 6, 2012.

But taking a presidential holiday is rarely easy. No matter who is in office, Democrat or Republican, the opposition delights in criticizing such vacations as examples of insensitivity toward those in need, being out of touch, wasting taxpayers' money for transportation, security, and other costs, or just plain goofing off.

Obama has delayed his winter vacation in each of the past three years. He was negotiating with Congress over health-care legislation in 2009, over tax cuts in 2010, and over a payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance in 2011. Last winter, the first lady and the presidential daughters left for Hawaii on their own, and the president didn't join them for nearly a week as he bargained with Congress. When he arrived, he spent his time playing golf, enjoying the beach, and relaxing privately with his family. His schedule is expected to be the same this year when, or if, he gets to Hawaii.

Suggesting what's to come if he does take a break, Republicans have already criticized him for playing too much golf — 17 rounds this year, including two in December. A year ago, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney blasted Obama for taking a Hawaii vacation that Romney derided as "golf in the sun." Romney added: "I just think it's time to have a president whose idea of being hands-on does not mean getting a better grip on the golf club."

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Criticizing presidential vacations has been common for many years. John Adams was attacked for leaving Washington for months at a time as he returned to his home in Massachusetts. More recently, Dwight Eisenhower was portrayed as a part-time president because of his many vacations. Ronald Reagan drew similar criticism for spending so much time at his California ranch — a total of a year out of his eight-year presidency. George W. Bush was derided for his frequent holidays at his ranch in central Texas.

Historians argue that the nation's leaders need time off to refresh themselves and escape the routines of the White House. It's also true that presidents can never truly get away from the job, because a commander in chief must deal with a crisis immediately and can't hide behind a "Do Not Disturb" sign. If Obama gets to Hawaii, he and his defenders will be making those same arguments in the next few weeks as the ritual of presidential vacation-bashing begins anew.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is also the author of "From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats," which describes presidential vacations over the years. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.