President Obama is about to begin his first summer vacation as president. At the end of the month, he and his wife, Michelle, their daughters, Sasha and Malia, and an entourage of advisers, Secret Service agents, and reporters will jet to Martha's Vineyard, Mass., a resort town that has long been popular with the rich and famous.
Obama is sure to draw his share of criticism for enjoying this exclusive playground while everyday people are enduring a recession and millions of Americans are out of work. The White House hasn't said how much it will cost, but properties similar to the 28-acre Blue Heron Farm (featuring a swimming pool, golf practice tee, and small basketball court), where the first family reportedly intends to stay, cost $30,000 to $50,000 per week. Obama apparently will pay for his family's lodging, but the taxpayers will foot the bill for Air Force One and for security, communications, and other costs.
How will Americans react? "By and large, people think presidents are entitled to family time," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "But this is against a backdrop of hard times for a lot of people. People are still forming their impressions of President Obama, and they wonder, does he feel their pain and connect to what they're going through?" Garin argues that "just because you are on vacation doesn't mean you can't feel people's pain."
Obama advisers expect him to mostly spend his time in seclusion with his family, but they expect a strong dose of criticism anyway. This is partly because vacationing presidents have been criticized for goofing off or showing insensitivity to the less fortunate almost since the start of the republic. For example, John Adams, the second president, traveled to his home in Quincy, Mass., as often as he could. Adams said it cleared his head and rejuvenated him to get out of Washington—a common explanation over the years as presidents have tried to explain their need for regular holidays. In 1799, Adams spent eight months in Quincy with his wife, Abigail, the longest period that a president has ever been away from the capital, which at the time was Philadelphia. Adams was widely criticized for his long absence, which allowed his political adversaries in his own government to plot against him and nearly ruin his peace overtures to France. In the end, he managed to quell the opposition after he returned to the capital, but his time away intensified his problems and damaged his reputation.
Abraham Lincoln, seeking solace for his public and private travails, took up residence 3 miles from the White House at the Soldiers' Home, a center for convalescing troops. He lived there during the summer months and found the spot a bit cooler and more private than the boisterous White House. He considered the Soldiers' Home so conducive to rumination that he wrote a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation there.
"People presume that the president no longer lives like them," says a senior Republican strategist who advised a major GOP presidential candidate last year. "People know the president lives a different sort of life." Obama has a public relations advantage, though, because he was not born to wealth and isn't considered a rich elitist. "He has a latitude on this stuff that he wouldn't have if his name was Bush and he was a member of the hereditary Establishment," says the strategist. Adds White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: "The American people understand that the president works hard and he deserves some down time with his wife and kids."
By and large, the nation's wealthiest presidents preferred their own retreats. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, escaped regularly to his home in Hyde Park, N.Y. John F. Kennedy had his family compound in Hyannisport, Mass. Lyndon Johnson was the king of the cowboys at his ranch on the Pedernales River in central Texas. George H. W. Bush enjoyed long weekends and summer vacations at Kennebunkport, Mass. And his son, George W. Bush, spent many days at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
For presidents who don't have their own estates, the preferred option has been to lease or borrow the homes of big contributors or wealthy supporters. That's what Gerald Ford did, along with Bill Clinton.
The bottom line is that Americans give presidents enormous latitude on where they go on vacation, how long they stay there, and even the price tag. So if the past is any indication, when critics start attacking Obama for jetting off to Martha's Vineyard, the attacks will be coming mostly from his partisan opponents, not Middle America.
- See pictures of Obama behind the scenes.