Obama and Cameron: A tale of two vacations


US President Barack Obama makes a statement to the press on the death of American journalist James Foley at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts August 20, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMMNICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

EDGARTOWN, MA — President Obama's second shot at an August vacation looks to be as star-crossed as the first — and his efforts to balance his presidential duties with a summer respite just as tricky.

The shocking news of James Foley’s execution broke as Air Force One landed at Cape Cod on Tuesday night. The president offered his condolences to the American journalist's family and angrily denounced Islamic State militants the following day. Then he went off for a round of golf — his seventh in ten days at Martha's Vineyard so far.

It wasn't the first time this month Obama has made a quick pivot from grim news to the green. Last week, the president was confronted by rising unrest in Ferguson, Mo. and upheaval in Iraq. After delivering a solemn statement on both crises, he hit the golf course just four minutes after leaving the podium.

If Wednesday's remarks were the latest to throw the tough politics of presidential playtime into sharp relief, they're unlikely to be the last. Obama still has  roughly four days left before he heads back to Washington.

Even when President Obama is on vacation in Martha's Vineyard, he still has to attend to the duties of the Oval Office. Lawrence Knutson, author of "Away from the White House: Presidential Escapes, Retreats, and Vacations," gives a look back at the origin of presidential vacations and the criticism that accompanies them. (Jayne W. Orenstein/The Washington Post)

And the president isn't the only world leader to see his vacation upended by world events this week. Three thousand miles away, British Prime Minister David Cameron was enjoying his own break in Cornwall — until news of the Foley situation.

On Monday, he defended his decision to go on holiday in language that echoed the White House's defense of Obama's Martha's Vineyard break. “Wherever I am in the world I am always within a few feet of a BlackBerry, and an ability to manage things should they need to be managed,” he said.

But Cameron promised to return if the situation called for it. And on Wednesday, he announced that he had made that decision, saying it is “increasingly likely” that a British citizen beheaded Foley. Upon his return to Downing Street on Wednesday, Cameron has said he will chair meetings on the situation in Syria and Iraq.

Aside from public appearances, there's another reason for the prime minister to return to London. The mobile phone signal in Cornwall is problematic. Cameron has been known to drive to the top of a hill, desperately looking for cell phone reception, so he can keep in touch with his colleagues in London and other world leaders. The prime minister has become so disgruntled that he has vowed to beef up the towers for better reception in the West Country.

But don’t hold your breath for President Obama to return to Washington — unlike Cameron, he does not travel lightly. Although the president did return to Washington for two days for a series of meetings, he essentially takes the White House with him wherever he goes — along with a press pool, a motorcade of 40+ vehicles, and crisis-ready communication apparatus.

"I think it’s fair to say there are, of course, ongoing complicated situations in the world, and that's why you’ve seen the president stay engaged," Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz told reporters last week. The president “has all the tools at his disposal no matter where he is, the same functional capabilities he has at his Oval Office desk,” said Steve Atkiss, the deputy director of advance for former President George W. Bush. When he goes anywhere, be it a day trip or a vacation, “the infrastructure follows him.”

So even though he may have made a largely unexplained weekend detour back to Washington for a series of White House meetings, Obama — unlike Cameron — has no pressing logistical need to end his holiday early. Of course, given the way it's has gone so far, he may be wishing it were already over.

Sebastian Payne is a national reporter with The Washington Post. He is the Post’s 35th Laurence Stern fellow.
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