If it’s August, it must be time for that annual Washington political tradition: griping over the president’s vacation.
Through wars and natural disasters, recessions and reelections, the getaway locales for America’s chief executive have been dissected by critics looking for symbolic reasons why the president shouldn’t go.
With 14 million Americans out of work, a volatile stock market and a historic downgrade of the country’s credit rating, President Obama is set to begin a 10-day retreat Thursday at a 28-acre Martha’s Vineyard compound called Blue Heron Farm, which costs an estimated $50,000 per week to rent. That divide — and the presumed hypocrisy of a president who has pledged not to rest “until every American looking for a job can find one,” going golfing and biking on an island playground for wealthy celebrities — has been too much for political pundits to resist.
Obama has taken heat the past two summers for renting Blue Heron, but the difference this time is the intensity of his critics and the fact that they are on both sides of the political aisle. Republican strategist Mike Murphy told the Daily Beast that Obama is “acting like the rich guys he wants to raise taxes on,” while liberal columnist Colbert I. King wrote in The Washington Post that this is the wrong time “to dwell in splendid seclusion among the rich and famous.”
At last week’s Republican presidential debate, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty was so quick to criticize that he flubbed the destination: “He should cancel his Cape Cod vacation, call the Congress back into session and get to work on this.”
So far, the administration has held firm on the president’s right to “spend some time with his family,” as White House spokesman Jay Carney said. Besides, he added, a president is never really on vacation because “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,” Carney said. “And he will, of course, be fully capable, if necessary, of traveling back if that were required. It is not very far.”
If it’s not far in mileage to travel on Air Force One, Martha’s Vineyard is a world away from the down-and-dirty partisan politics of Washington and the small-town, middle-American vibe of Obama’s three-day bus tour of Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, which wraps up Wednesday.
The island features six quaint seaside towns, where the average house price is $650,000. Blue Heron Farm, owned by William Van Devender, a Mississippi timber merchant, boasts a main house, several guest quarters, a swimming pool, a golf tee and a basketball court.
If last summer is any indication, Obama will probably hit the links at the Vineyard Golf Club, catch up on his summer reading at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore and ride bikes with daughters Malia and Sasha at the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, a 5,100-acre preserve with 15 miles of bike trails.
Obama has paid his family’s share of the property’s rental cost each summer. But as is the case each time the president travels on official duties, taxpayers are on the hook for the millions of dollars it could cost for the Secret Service to secure the island, as well as for the transportation and housing of dozens of White House staff.
Though the Obamas spent time in Martha’s Vineyard before entering the White House, the president’s critics have suggested he consider alternative locales, such as his home town of Chicago or Camp David. Others have called on him to cancel the trip, remain in Washington and demand Congress call off its summer recess to work with him on new job bills.
“Some folks were asking me, well, why don’t you just call Congress back?” Obama told a crowd of 500 in Cannon Falls, Minn., on his first stop on the bus tour Monday. “And I said, you know, I don’t think it’s going to make people feel real encouraged if we have Congress come back and all they’re doing is arguing again.”
Kenneth Walsh, a journalist who wrote “From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats,” a book on presidential vacations, said presidents have been criticized for escaping from the White House “since the beginning of the country.”
In 1799, for example, John Adams spent eight months of the year on vacation at his home in Quincy, Mass., which stands as a record for presidential free time. During his absence, Walsh said, Adams’s congressional adversaries seized the initiative and “almost got into a war with France.”
The little polling data that exist appear to show that Americans generally support ample time off for presidents. A Gallup poll in August 2001 found that 48 percent of Americans thought that a president should get at least four or more weeks of vacation, with 18 percent supporting three weeks and 22 percent favoring two weeks. Just 3 percent said a president should not take vacation.
So, though the public understands that Obama is entitled to some time off, the problem is in perception, Walsh said.
“During hardship times, maybe a vacation should be restricted to show you’re not insensitive to the country,” he said. “A lot of Americans can’t take a vacation and can’t afford one. . . . Going to Martha’s Vineyard, he might have a problem in the optics, the playground of celebrities, being in a rich person’s home, even if he has the money to pay for it. It can look quite insensitive at this time. Maybe it would be better all around if he went someplace different, less expensive and exclusive.”
Obama is not the first president to catch grief for appearing insensitive to the country’s plight while engaged in recreational pursuits. Harry Truman was regularly mocked for wearing Hawaiian-style flowered shirts on his many jaunts to Key West, Fla., during the post-World War II era. Dwight Eisenhower spent 365 days at his farm in Gettysburg, Pa., over six years, prompting the Democratic National Committee chairman to label him a “part-time president.”
In 1990, during the Persian Gulf conflict, George H.W. Bush called on Americans to conserve energy, but he stipulated that he would not give up zipping around off the coast of Kennebunkport, Maine, in his speedboat, Fidelity.
“I’m going to keep using my boat,” Bush said at the time. “And I hope the rest of America will prudently recreate. I don’t think we’ve reached the point where I want to call on everybody in the recreation industry to shut it down or everybody that’s taking a vacation in American to shut it down.”
Jimmy Carter, by comparison, gave in to pressure in June 1979 when he got an urgent call from an adviser while aboard Air Force One heading to a three-day vacation in Hawaii. An extended energy crisis had dropped Carter’s approval rating to 25 percent, and the aide pleaded with him to cut short the trip, which he did, retreating instead to Camp David, Md., for meetings with advisers.
Some presidents have used vacations to send another kind of political message. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush retreated to their ranches in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Crawford, Tex., respectively. Reagan was regularly photographed chopping wood or riding horses, while Bush was shown clearing brush — more rugged pursuits that suggested they remained no-nonsense even while on vacation.
Even so, Reagan canceled a vacation in September 1983, after the Soviet Union shot down a Korean passenger airline.
For his part, Bush was criticized by the media for being out of touch when he failed to recognize intelligence warnings before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks while on vacation for most of August 2001. And though he cut short a vacation during the Hurricane Katrina disaster in August 2005, Bush was faulted by some for being slow to respond.
His predecessor, Bill Clinton, vacationed each summer in Martha’s Vineyard. But in 1995, with the economy struggling and his reelection campaign underway, Clinton famously heeded the advice of strategist Dick Morris and went camping in Wyoming instead.
“Clinton was so good at ‘feel your pain.’ They decided that camping was an all-American vacation,” said John Kenneth White, a political science professor at Catholic University. “Once the president was reelected, he went back to Martha’s Vineyard and never went camping again.”
Perhaps the greatest example of a president striking the right balance between his own comfort and the somber mood of the nation came in 1939, during the Great Depression. After welcoming a visit from the king and queen of England, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took them to his home in Hyde Park, N.Y., for a relaxed picnic celebration.
But to the chagrin of his mother, Roosevelt served the royal family something appropriate for the penny-pinching times: hot dogs.