When duty calls, President Obama has to put his holidays on hold

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010

Traveling as president has its advantages: no traffic to the airport, a cadre of personal flight attendants and a luxury aircraft that takes off whenever the passenger in chief wants.

But as President Obama has discovered, there is also a downside.

Trying to schedule a vacation -- or even a weekend away -- has proven next-to-impossible for the first family; world events keep conspiring to mess up their plans. Their vacation in Hawaii over Christmas was pushed back because of the health-care debate. Two months later the same issue forced the Obamas to cancel a family trip to Indonesia over spring break. And all three of the president's most recent foreign trips -- including voyages to Asia and Copenhagen -- have been rearranged or postponed at the last minute.

It should have come as no surprise, then, that soon after the Obamas announced plans to spend a long Memorial Day weekend in Chicago, a massive oil spill that for weeks had been lurking off the Gulf Coast finally made landfall, wiping out birds and fish, mucking up the shoreline and driving round-the-clock cable news coverage.

Obama once again adjusted his schedule, announcing that he will fly to Chicago on Thursday night as planned but then leave Friday morning for a day trip to New Orleans, cutting short his first substantial visit home in more than a year.

The military has a term for developments that wash out plans: OBE, or "overtaken by events." Few people are more vulnerable to the phenomenon than the commander in chief, whose job description includes expecting the unexpected.

But Obama's schedule has been even more fluid than other presidents'. That is in part by design, as he seeks to prove that he is more adaptable and attuned to crisis than his immediate predecessor, who failed to rush to the scene of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The long-awaited Chicago visit comes at the end of a week of "horrible karma," one adviser noted, with the oil spill, the collapsing European economy, an escalating crisis on the Korean Peninsula and, on Wednesday, a stock market that closed below 10,000 for the first time in months. ("At least Elena Kagan is doing fine," joked the adviser, referring to the president's Supreme Court nominee.) Perhaps his Chicago friends are in on it: the last time Obama set out to spend vacation time with his inner hometown circle, over Christmas in Hawaii, a young Nigerian man tried to bring down an airplane with a bomb in his underwear.

Obama's jinxed schedule won't necessarily ruin the weekend for his family. First lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia are staying behind in Chicago while the president tours the oil spill damage. They are expected to spend time with friends and at their house. The $1.65 million Georgian revival home, with four fireplaces and a wine cellar, has sat empty for most of the last year and a half, not including the Secret Service agents who watch over the place year-round.

This weekend the house will once again become a fortress, as even more Secret Service descends on Hyde Park, blocking off city streets and screening neighbors. The hassles involved in creating a secure zone in the middle of a city neighborhood is one reason the president has not gone home to Chicago with his family since February 2009. That, and the way the world keeps getting in the way.

Staff writer Peter Slevin contributed to this report.

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