The first family had been scheduled to leave for Kailua, on the island of Oahu, this week for an annual holiday visit. With the White House locked in a high-stakes standoff with House Republicans, the president could be left behind even if his wife and daughters head to the Aloha State.
The latest sign of scheduling trouble came Monday, when Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said he expects Congress to be back in session the day after Christmas to continue work on the fiscal dilemma.
Presidential vacations have long been tricky for White House occupants, who are mindful not to appear frivolous and out of touch. The mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., last week could make it even more awkward for Obama to leave town this year, since he has pledged to move quickly in the coming weeks to find ways to curb gun violence.
Obama’s winter vacation has never been canceled, but it has been delayed each of his first three years in office because of protracted year-end negotiations with Congress — over health-care reform in 2009, the extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts in 2010 and the extension of a payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance in 2011.
Last winter, as first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, jetted off, the president remained in the White House for six days, with only Bo the Portuguese water dog to keep him company, as he and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) stared each other down from opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Late last week, Obama emerged from the West Wing shortly after 12:30 p.m. and walked across closed-off Pennsylvania Avenue to Blair House to attend a holiday party at the National Security Council.
“Will you get a deal by Christmas?” one reporter shouted, referring to fiscal negotiations. Obama said only that the negotiations remain “a work in progress.”
Since then, Obama has met twice with Boehner, including a 45-minute conversation Monday.
The Hawaii Reporter reported late last month that island residents were alerted by federal security agencies that restrictions will be imposed from Dec. 17 through Jan. 6 in anticipation of the Obamas’ visit. Administration officials caution that they build in flexibility to the schedule and that the president was not necessarily planning to be away that long.
Even though Obama has not taken a formal vacation this year, he has been criticized by some Republicans for his frequent golf outings. He has played 17 rounds this year, including two this month, one of which included former president Bill Clinton.
Obama has also spent several weekends at Camp David, the private presidential retreat in Maryland.
In the public posturing over the fiscal cliff, House Republicans sought to get the upper hand last week when Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) accused Obama of delaying tactics and told colleagues to prepare to work through Christmas to get a deal done.
“We’re going to stay here right up until Christmas Eve, throughout the time and period before the New Year, because we want to make sure we resolve this in an acceptable way for the American people,” Cantor said.
In 2009, Obama’s vacation was delayed a day. In 2010, it was cut short by five days. Last year, with his family enjoying a beach-side villa in Kailua, Obama made an unannounced shopping trip to Alexandria with Bo and a gaggle of reporters in tow.
The president dropped $235 in an hour, buying presents for his daughters and a chew toy for the dog, while not so subtly making his pitch to extend the payroll tax cut so that middle-class Americans had more disposable income.
He finally left Washington in time to join his family two days before Christmas after reaching a temporary, two-month extension agreement with Boehner, who dropped additional demands amid public pressure.
Outside the Washington crucible, Obama spent the first day of his 2011 winter holiday playing a round of golf at the Marine Corps Base Hawaii’s Klipper course in Kaneohe. Whether he’ll be back again his year remains to be seen.