As predictably as the August heat in Washington, columnists and other commentators are assailing both President Obama and members of Congress for going on vacation this month. But the criticism is not based on facts; it is more commonly rooted in a distaste—actually, disgust, this year—of elected officials, whom some seem to believe must be punished by being denied a day off.
Let's start with Congress, which left Washington earlier this month after passing, at the final hour, an inadequate "deal" to avoid forcing the nation into its first-ever default. They are back in their districts or they are on congressional fact-finding trips. They are not on vacation. Arguably, being back in the district is more exhausting than being here in Washington for members of Congress, who cannot go to the grocery store or a restaurant without being spotted by a constituent who wants to complain or even say hello. It's not that lawmakers don't like talking to constituents; they do. But they have virtually no privacy when they go home, and their days back in the district are packed with local events, from meetings with the Chamber of Commerce to town halls to fundraising events. They don't take weekends off, not when they are in session, and not when they are back in the district. And the foreign trips they take are not junkets—at least, not anymore. While it might seem glamorous to visit Europe or the Middle East, lawmakers' schedules there are jam-packed with meetings with foreign officials, and the days are very, very long. [Vote now: Who won the debt ceiling standoff?]
Obama, meanwhile, is already drawing his yearly fire for going to Martha's Vineyard for a brief vacation. For presidents—especially the recent ones, who have undergone extreme stress from events ranging from 9-11 to the financial meltdowns—a vacation is not just a deserved break, it's an absolute necessity. Not taking any break at all is like driving all night—it's not heroic; it's just dangerous. And it's not just about the president. It's also about two young girls who didn't run for president and didn't have a choice of a life where they can't just go outside and play or roam around the mall with their friends. The White House must look pretty sweet from the outside, but it's not a place where a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old want to be holed up. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
As for those who suggest that Obama should not go to such a fancy place, hanging out with the rich and famous: he doesn't. Unlike President Clinton, who would indeed socialize on the island with some celebrity friends of the first couple, Obama and his family keep to themselves. They bicycle, get ice cream, and go for walks. Or, they do that the best they can, given the fact that an entire press corps heads to Martha's Vineyard as well, trying to get a sighting of the first family. There's nothing relaxing about that, especially for the Obama daughters.
The suggestion that somehow Congress will actually get things done if they come back to Washington this month is absurd. They barely averted a fiscal disaster even when they stayed here through weekends. Congress, back in their districts, isn't getting a real vacation this year. But they are getting a break from each other—which might end up being just what they need.