At a time when many more cash-strapped Americans are stuck at home instead of vacationing at the beach, President Obama next week will lead an entourage of several dozens to exclusive Martha's Vineyard island at a cost of millions to taxpayers.
While technically he is paying for his estimated $50,000 a week rental of the 28-acre beachfront Blue Heron Farm in woodsy Chilmark, the dozens of U.S. Secret Service agents, communications officials, top aides, drivers, and U.S. Coast Guard personnel with him will be covered by taxpayers as with every other presidential vacation.[Get your Whispers on your iPad--subscribe to U.S. News Weekly.]
His 11-day stay will require the Coast Guard to keep ships floating near Obama's farm, a presidential helicopter and jet at the ready and security agents on 24-hour duty. Armored SUVs dubbed "war wagons" have been flown in to carry the presidential family around the island. It was the same way when former President George H.W. Bush visited Kennebunkport, Maine and Bill Clinton visited Martha's Vineyard during their presidencies. [See political cartoons about President Obama.]
Typically, say former White House officials, the collection of aides is smaller for a summer vacation than for an official trip. And the motorcade is cut in half, to about 20 cars. What's more, the press corps will be smaller, though they largely pay for themselves.
Obama's vacation comes at an awkward time because of the economic turmoil roiling the nation and Wall Street. Surveys show that a growing number of Americans can't afford even small vacations. [Check out editorial cartoons about the economy.]
But former Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry says that every president needs a break from the confines of the White House.
"We do need to let these guys have vacations and do some reading and thinking outside the box," he said.
What's more, keeping a sizeable crew of aides nearby is critical, he said. "Remember Clinton's trip to Martha's Vineyard in August 1998 when we ended up trying to decapitate bin Laden with a cruise missile strike? That's why the 'entourage' has to accommodate all aspects of the presidency, even on vacation. You never know what might happen. August always produces the unexpected." [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
And he dismissed the criticism of vacationing presidents. "I think all this 'Why is he taking a vacation?' stuff is ginned up by the media," he said. "I don't think any American will fault him for getting away, especially if he comes back with some fresh ideas on how to create jobs."
Obama will certainly have a lot of space to brainstorm. The $20 million farm on Cobbs Hill Road features four dwellings, a swimming pool and a basketball court. Google Earth shows that there is also a single hole golf area with two bunkers. The president, his wife and two daughters can also go to private Squibnocket Beach or Great Pond. There is an apple orchard, and flower and vegetable gardens. [See photos of Michelle Obama.]
The local Vineyard Gazette reports that the Secret Service is already setting up camp and areas for the media are also being set aside. "Suddenly cell phone service in Chilmark, usually spotty to nonexistent, was crystal clear, another sign that the president is coming," reported the paper's Peter Brannen.
Finding enough housing for staff and security isn't easy. Brannen reported that at the recent town meeting, "Selectman Walter Vail announced that he would be taking a vacation from August 16 to 28 to accommodate Secret Service members who were renting his house."