Politically charged atmosphere makes it harder for presidents on vacation

President shifts from national security commander to outdoor sportsman during vacation, all while catching up with some of his oldest friends in a place that holds deep meaning for him.
By Anne Kornblut
Saturday, January 2, 2010

KAILUA, HAWAII -- Before heading to a luau on Wednesday, President Obama did something much more somber, his aides said: He called CIA Director Leon Panetta to discuss the deaths of seven agency officers in a suicide attack in Afghanistan.

On Thursday morning, before taking his family to a private viewing of the movie "Avatar 3-D," Obama called his counterterrorism and homeland security advisers for updates on the probe of an attempted airline attack a week earlier.

On New Year's Eve, after more than five hours of golf, the president "cleared the decks" for work, aides said -- sequestering himself for several hours to study some preliminary assessments of intelligence failures in the airline case.

Senior administration officials have gone to great lengths to protect Obama's private time while he vacations in Hawaii. But challenging national security events over the past two weeks underscore the changed political climate that surrounds a president when taking a break from Washington.

Like President George W. Bush, who came under political fire for taking a long vacation on his Texas ranch after Hurricane Katrina, Obama and his aides have seen the need for hypervigilance when it comes to protecting the president's image as national security leader.

Obama delayed his vacation until the Senate passed a health-care bill, his main legislative objective. But since arriving in Hawaii, the aborted terrorist attack on a passenger jet and the bombing at a CIA base in Afghanistan have left him open to partisan criticism that he should have returned to the White House.

Obama waited three days before speaking about the Christmas Day incident aboard a Detroit-bound plane, giving Republican critics time to chide his administration. Once challenged, the president's staff kicked into high gear, stressing his involvement in conference calls and key decision-making.

On Thursday, while Obama golfed, his staff released an official photograph made earlier in the day. It showed his concerned expression during a national security teleconference.

"It's clear that he finds being out here rejuvenating," said Denis McDonough, National Security Council chief of staff, who has spent many hours with the president throughout the trip. But, McDonough said, Obama was often the one turning the subject back to national security. "He has a hunger for this stuff. He is always asking: 'What if we did this? What's the latest? What more can we be doing?' "

Criticism's impact unclear

As Obama begins preparing for an expected Monday return, it is unclear whether Republican criticism will have lasting impact. "There were 48 hours of missing tape," said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who is vacationing nearby. "Clearly the Republicans, who have short memories, used the period of noncommunication to politically paint him as being weak on national security when the opposite is true. But you have to get the truth out in time."

Brazile thinks that after a quick rebound, "the Obama team is now ahead of the game."

Aides said Obama at no point considered cutting short his trip, and they said he still had fun despite the unexpected crises. He played golf and basketball, went snorkeling and to the gym, and ate at his favorite Honolulu restaurant. His wife and children went to the beach, and his family spent time with a group of Chicago friends who traveled to Hawaii with them and with Oahu residents who have known Obama since childhood.

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