The contrast couldn't be starker.
President Bush spends his final vacation as president in virtual seclusion at his Texas ranch. President-elect Barack Obama spends his final vacation before taking office immersed in the outside world in his native state of Hawaii.
The vacation habits of the two men say a lot about their leadership styles and how they cope with pressure. For Bush, the key is privacy; for Obama, it's engagement.
From the start of his presidency, Bush has considered his 1,600-acre spread in a remote section of central Texas his sanctuary. White House officials generally give only sketchy outlines of his schedule there, as they did on his latest trip. But it is known that he has hosted 18 meetings with foreign leaders at Prairie Chapel Ranch near the hamlet of Crawford and regularly rides his mountain bike, clears brush, and chops cedar when he is on the property.
There has also been an element of public relations. Bush wants to be known as a Washington outsider and a westerner, so his purchase of the ranch in 1999 was in keeping with those images. In 2001, he told reporters, "I know a lot of you wish you were in the East Coast, lounging on the beaches, sucking in the salt air. But when you're from Texas—and love Texas—this is where you come home. It'll be the house where I live in for the rest of my life. I like my own home, and I don't mind the heat."
Not quite. It turns out that Bush and his wife, Laura, will live in Dallas after they leave the White House. Bush said recently that he still likes Crawford, but his wife prefers Dallas, where many of their friends live and where his presidential library will be located. Friends say he is likely to keep the ranch, but it won't be his "home" after all.
Bush has now made 77 trips to the ranch during his presidency. If he departs on New Year's Day as scheduled, he will have spent 490 full or partial days there, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News, who keeps records of Bush's travels. That's one of the highest numbers of presidential vacation days in history.
"The ranch has been a place where the president and Mrs. Bush have been able to relax, have friends over, and get away from the spotlight of the White House some," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters this week. " . . . It has been a place where he could take some time off."
This is a common pattern. America's commanders in chief have regularly and, in some cases, obsessively sought a respite from their duties at their homes. George Washington, for example, spent as much time at his home in Mount Vernon, Va., as he could. Thomas Jefferson had his plantation at Monticello in Virginia. Theodore Roosevelt had Sagamore Hill on Long Island. Franklin Roosevelt often went to his home in Hyde Park, N.Y., and to his retreat at Warm Spring, Ga. John F. Kennedy took frequent breaks in Hyannisport, Mass. Lyndon Johnson regularly visited his ranch in central Texas. George Herbert Walker Bush vacationed in Kennebunkport, Maine.
The common thread is a search for normalcy, but each president defines it in different ways.
While George W. Bush wanted private time above all, Obama appears to be more in tune with Bill Clinton—seeking the companionship of friends and acquaintances, going out for meals and family jaunts, enjoying his wider surroundings.
While staying at a posh rented house this week, he visited the Honolulu Zoo on Tuesday with his daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. Bystanders cheered and shouted "thank you," as they did on several of his other public appearances. He has also gone out for "shaved ice," a type of snow cone, with the girls and some of his friends. He has relaxed by glaying golf, and on one occasion, played basketball at his alma mater, the private Punahou School.
While on the island, he often wore shorts and flip-flops, as many do, and nearly every morning, he got some exercise at a local gym. He was trailed in his ramblings by a small group of reporters, known as the "press pool." One of their reports to the wider press corps for Tuesday morning said, "President-elect Barack Obama left his vacation home in Kailua at 7:40 a.m. for his usual morning workout at the Semper Fit Center at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. The motorcade arrived at 7:49 a.m., and about 30 onlookers gathered in front of the gym to snap pictures and wave. Obama was wearing a black hat, black athletic pants, and a white T-shirt. He was accompanied by Chicago friends Valerie Jarrett, Eric Whitaker, and Martin Nesbitt. The pool is now holding at McDonald's."