Obama Faces Criticism Over Martha's Vineyard Vacation

There's a long history of criticism of presidential vacations.

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It happens every summer: the ritual of bashing the president for spending too much time and money on vacation while everyday Americans endure economic trouble and count their pennies. Barack Obama is now the target of such criticism as he prepares for his family trip to the posh resort of Martha's Vineyard, where he is scheduled to rent a luxurious seaside home for eight days starting Saturday.

He has spent his summer vacations at Martha's Vineyard in 2009, 2010 and 2011. He skipped the Vineyard in 2012, an election year.

Every since I began covering the White House 27 years ago, this has been the pattern. Ronald Reagan was attacked for regularly visiting his ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif. George H.W. Bush got hit for frequent vacations at his estate in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bill Clinton didn't experience the same level of criticism because he didn't vacation as much, but he did draw his share of ridicule for hanging around with the rich and famous at Martha's Vineyard.

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George W. Bush was pilloried for his frequent trips to his Texas ranch. He apparently holds the modern record for days on vacation, 879 over eight years. At this point in his presidency, Bush had taken 399 days off, compared with Obama's 87, according to CBS News reporter Mark Knoller, who keeps statistics on presidential holidays. Bush spent most of those vacations at his Texas ranch.

President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Sasha and Malia, far left, walk across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, Aug., 26, 2011, after a family vacation on Martha's Vineyard.
President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Sasha and Malia, far left, walk across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, Aug., 26, 2011, after a family vacation on Martha's Vineyard.

I wrote a book about all this called "From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats." It turns out that presidents have been bashed for their vacation habits almost from the beginning of the Republic. In 1799, President John Adams remained away from the capital for eight months, more than twice as long as George Washington's longest absence, and Adams was severely criticized for it.

Franklin Roosevelt made 134 visits to his home at Hyde Park, N.Y., during his 12-year presidency for a total 562 full or partial days. He also got away from Washington for visits to his rural home in Warm Springs, Ga., and spent an additional 175 days there. He went for periodic boat trips, sometimes aboard Navy vessels, although the number of days he was away on such excursions is unclear.

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Dwight Eisenhower spent 365 days of his presidency at his Gettysburg, Pa., farm over the span of six years, from 1955 to 1961 (his farm had been under renovation before that). This included 38 days when he was recuperating from a heart attack in 1955.

Lyndon Johnson visited his Texas ranch 74 times during his five-year presidency and spent part or all of 484 days there.

Clearly, presidents over the years have felt the need to get away from Washington as often as possible, especially during the traditional vacation season in the summer, because they need a break like everyone else.

They get into trouble when they seem insensitive, such as when their private holidays seem too extravagant at times of economic stress. That's the danger that Obama runs now.

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Already, conservative critics from various corners, including Fox News and the Daily Caller, and billionaire Donald Trump, have mocked Obama for planning to take a long holiday at a place very few Americans can afford while millions of fellow citizens struggle with hard times. In response, White House officials say Obama works hard and is entitled to his vacation. They also argue that a president can never fully escape the duties of his job, especially when there is a crisis.

This summer, the White House may have an advantage in the PR wars over presidential holidays. That's because Congress also has left Washington for a five-week summer holiday despite the fact that legislators have passed very few bills and are stuck in gridlock on many issues.

 

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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 "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and on Facebook and Twitter.