Republicans question whether President Obama deserves a vacation

By Scott Wilson
Sunday, August 22, 2010; A03

VINEYARD HAVEN, MASS. -- For the second straight year, the first family has landed on this island of quaint seaside towns, second homes and working farms for a late-summer getaway.

But this year, more so than last, political opponents are trying to hang a question over the visit: Does President Obama deserve a vacation?

The Republican National Committee has taken to calling Obama "the Clark Griswold president," a mocking reference to the Chevy Chase character in National Lampoon's "Vacation" movies. With unemployment claims climbing again, the GOP was hoping its criticism would have a certain national resonance. And maybe it will.

One potential complication: Obama has spent far less time on vacation than his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, had at this point in his presidency.

Veteran CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller, a fastidious keeper of presidential statistics, has kept count. By his tally, Obama has embarked on nine "vacations" since taking office, bringing his total days off to 48. Some of those trips lasted a day and some, like his Christmas holiday in Hawaii, more than a week.

By comparison, Bush had visited his ranch in Crawford, Tex., 14 times at this point in his administration and spent 115 days there. And yes, Democrats let him have it, too, complaining that he was a chronic vacationer.

White House advisers made clear in the days leading up to this getaway that a president, especially a wartime president overseeing a country in the grips of economic distress, is never really on vacation.

Obama will see his family more over these nine days. He'll likely read more fiction than briefing books. He'll play more golf and wear fewer ties.

And everyone other than his family will see him less; on Saturday, he remained out of sight, even to the press pool that accompanies him.

But the result of the enormous logistical effort to take the president on the road is that the White House, at least as much of it as he wants, goes with him. As do the problems he's contending with.

Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, the distinctly unlaid-back former CIA senior official John Brennan, briefs him every morning here. Obama is also receiving regular economic briefings between beach picnics (like the one the family took late Saturday morning), town excursions and visits to the links.

"Communication systems are very robust," Brennan, dressed in a dark suit, tie tight against his throat, told reporters here Friday. "We can move information at the speed of light. We can get to him very easily here."

The issue of whether presidents deserve time off appears to appeal only to the most vociferous partisans on either side.

Given the job is a stressful one, and that vacations are usually interrupted with emergencies of varying grade, many people say they believe a president should get a little R&R when timing allows.

The debate on this island, which has seen presidents before, appears firmly settled in favor of letting Obama have the time.

As an opening gambit in the argument, the Mansion House Inn, where the press corps is staying on Main Street, hung a banner from the roof shading its graceful front porch.

"Mansion House Inn Believes Anyone Who Has . . . Passed health care reform, signed economic stimulus bills, recast America's global image, commands two war zones, won a Nobel Peace Prize, nominated 2 Supreme Court judges, overhauled financial regulations . . . deserves a vacation!" the banner reads.

Around the corner, Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia made their first public foray Friday with a stop at Bunch of Grapes, a bookstore along Main Street. Obama is an avid reader and usually has an extensive book list picked ahead of time.

Not so this year. On Friday, he chose "Freedom," the new novel by Jonathan Franzen (although not officially on sale, the store gave the president its advance copy). Sticking with fiction, he also bought "Tinkers" by Paul Harding and "A Few Corrections" by Brad Leithauser.

Then he hit the links at the difficult Vineyard Golf Club before returning to Blue Heron Farm, a bayside compound along the island's southern edge that he rented last year.

The island appears pleased that the Obamas have returned.

A health club is offering 50 percent off family memberships "in honor of Michelle Obama and 'Let's Move,' " the youth fitness initiative she supports. The Chamber of Commerce hung out a "welcome back" shingle, and Tisberry Frozen Yogurt put "Obama-berry" back on the menu for the duration of the family's visit.

"It's a super-fruit flavor, so that's why we call it Obama-berry," said Marion Le Coguic, a Boston University senior working at the shop for the summer.

Ingredients: Goji berry, acai, blueberry and pomegranate. When Obama leaves the island, the flavor reverts to its usual name, Pom-berry.

"Everybody deserves a break," Le Coguic said. "And he's got a tough job."

The sentiment is shared outside the Black Dog Bakery, a popular stop for tourists and locals alike near the ferry terminal.

Bill Schweizer, a California lawyer on vacation himself, pondered Obama's rest worthiness over coffee and a muffin on the bench outside the bakery.

"He's accomplished a lot, and he works all the time," said Schweizer, who supported Obama in the 2008 election. "I think he's done a good job and deserves whatever rest he can grab here and there."

At the other end of the bench, Rick Mahoney, a carpenter from Oak Bluffs, agrees.

"I didn't even make $60,000 last year, and I still spent two weeks in the Caribbean," Mahoney said. "You've just got to do it."

Mahoney said his business has been very slow -- nonexistent for months at a time last year -- but appears to be turning around. There's some new home construction. A hotel project, frozen after the financial crash, is starting back up. He thinks Obama has had something to do with that.

"Now he needs a break like all of us," Mahoney said. "And he came to the right place."

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