Obama Takes A Vacation: Getaway Or Gaffe?

Aug 19, 2011

As the U.S. economy takes hit after hit, President Obama is taking heat for his 10-day fun-in-the-sun vacation at Martha's Vineyard that began Thursday.

From the left: Colbert I. King, op-ed writer for The Washington Post, observed: "Mr. President, Martha's Vineyard is the last place in the world you should visit. ... You simply don't have time to take time off from America."

From the right: Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist, told the Daily Beast that Obama is "acting like the rich guys he wants to raise taxes on."

From The Donald: Obama "takes more vacations than any human being I've ever seen," Donald Trump told Greta Van Susteren on Fox News. "I think it sends a very, very bad message. We have to work in this country to bring it back."

Scott Stanzel, a former deputy assistant and deputy White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, says, "At a time when most Americans can barely afford a vacation that doesn't involve pitching a tent in their backyard, President Obama is not doing himself any public relations favors by choosing to vacation in one of the country's most exclusive and expensive destinations."

Stanzel, who now runs a public relations firm in Seattle, sums it up this way: "Images matter."

A Vague-cation

As an image, the "summer vacation" in America continues to symbolize what it has for decades — a laid-back, leisurely time: of pleasure not pressure, ointments not appointments, swimsuits not wool suits. A time when the office phone went unanswered, mail piled up on the desk, deals were left undone.

Practically, however, the vacation has changed. With 24-7 connectivity, people work while they play. They operate and vacate. They file reports and throw Frisbees. They close deals and open beers.

For many high-octane Americans the idea of a doh-de-doh, do-nothing summer holiday has morphed into a hybrid of telework and Casual Friday. It has become more of a vague-cation.

These so-called vacationers post an Out of Office Reply, but respond to email anyway. They spend mornings in telemeetings and afternoons on the golf course. They get sand in their iPads.

Such is the president's lot. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney recently told reporters that Obama will be working while he is in Martha's Vineyard. "There's no such thing as a presidential vacation," Carney said. "The presidency travels with you. He will be in constant communication and get regular briefings from his national security team, as well as his economic team, and he will, of course, be fully capable, if necessary, of traveling back if that were required."

Carl Sferrazza Anthony, historian at the National First Ladies Library, has studied presidential families at work and at play. "We have evidence that presidents are often working while vacationing," Anthony says. William Howard Taft, for example, met with visiting diplomats and conducted political meetings while on holiday.

Because of the evolving scope of presidential duties and the expansion of domestic issues to those on a global scale and "the advances in technology --from telegraph to photography to film to sound to television to video to cable to wireless — the way Obama vacations is a radical difference from the way Taft did a century ago," Anthony says. "Obama may be able to take a bike ride with his daughters for about an hour, but he will never be out of the sight of security and there will always be someone within immediate distance with communications equipment for him to use in case of some crisis."

A presidential getaway "is a semi-vacation," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "It's never what you and I would think of as a vacation on the beach."

A staffer in the administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon and an adviser to Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Hess says that when Obama leaves town — whether he's on a trip overseas or a bus journey to the Midwest — "there are massive amounts of communication equipment that follow and connect him with everybody."

And being away from the White House does have advantages. "There is a great deal of presidential work that is make-work," Hess says. "Picture taking with dignitaries, autographing stuff, shaking hands with various visitors and on and on and on."

Time away from the daily grind can sharpen the mind, Hess says.

'Outside Of The Bubble'

"Sometimes it's important just to get away," President George W. Bush once said as he gave reporters a tour of his ranch retreat in Crawford, Texas. "Coming out here makes you realize that Washington is a wonderful place but it's certainly not the center of all wisdom and knowledge."

Like Obama, Bush received criticism for his vacationing ways. But, according to Stanzel, the 43rd president continued to receive the daily security briefing from CIA and National Security Council officials; he conducted secure video teleconference discussions with foreign leaders, White House staff and members of his Cabinet; and he used the August congressional recess time to invite foreign leaders — British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and others — to the ranch to discuss world issues and develop deeper diplomatic relations.

A typical "vacation" day for President Bush, Stanzel says, went something like this: When the president didn't have a foreign visitor at the ranch, he usually received a security briefing early in the morning — as he did while at the White House. Then he cut brush on his ranch for a few hours. After lunch, he would receive additional briefings and participate in as-needed meetings with his staff. In the afternoon, he would often go for a mountain bike ride on the ranch or fish in a pond near his home. He spent evenings with his family.

"Getting outside of the bubble of Washington, D.C., can be helpful to any president," Stanzel says. "A change in perspective is always welcome."

But it's the symbol — more than the reality — of Obama's vacation that sticks in the craw of Stanzel and others. Stanzel points out that Bush took summer breaks on a family ranch in Texas and not a traditional vacation destination. Obama, on the other hand, "likes to travel to the upscale Northeastern island of Martha's Vineyard where common activities include yachting and wine tasting."

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