For Obama, a quiet vacation despite being prepared for the worst
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 3:54 PM
HONOLULU - For perhaps the only time in President Obama's tenure in the White House, a vacation has gone almost exactly as planned.
Obama arrived here eager to have a true holiday. And after 11 days of golf, tennis and snorkeling - interrupted by an occasional briefing by his aides - the president will leave Hawaii on Monday night after having appeared in public only to buy his daughters shaved ice and to eat at his favorite Honolulu restaurant.
It was very different from his 2009 vacation, when the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a plane bound for Detroit quickly ended any relaxation for Obama and his team just one day after they arrived in Hawaii. And it was a world away from events of the pre-Christmas weeks of 2010, when the president was forced to delay his trip for five days as Congress slowly completed its work.
With little major news in the United States or abroad, besides snowstorms, Obama's only change in his vacation was to extend it: He will arrive in Washington on Tuesday afternoon, instead of Monday as originally scheduled.
The president and his team had prepared for the worst. After last year's attempted terrorist attack, the White House upgraded the technology at his vacation home, making it easier for Obama to speak with national security officials during an emergency.
Nick Rasmussen, senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, joined the small entourage of aides who came to Hawaii with the president.
John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, stayed in Washington but was in constant touch with aides here, a fact that the White House relayed to reporters in an effort to communicate that the president was prepared for any potential threat, even though he was officially on vacation.
"The additional staffing and communications capability in Hawaii allowed us to ensure that the president was fully plugged into our counterterrorism efforts throughout the holiday season, while providing a robust capability to manage a crisis should it have occurred," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser who accompanied Obama.
Obama did do one important bit of business in Hawaii. On Sunday, he signed into law a provision that provides billions of dollars in compensation and long-term health-care benefits for the first responders who became ill working at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Aside from issuing written statements on a few minor events that took place here and abroad, Obama settled into a rhythm that was not interrupted by news. Almost every morning he went to the gym at a Marine base a few miles from his vacation home.
Afternoons were filled with sports. He played golf almost every other day with a group of longtime friends whose families vacation regularly with the president. On his non-golf days, Obama went bowling, played basketball and tennis with the friends and his two daughters.
As he has done the past two years, Obama greeted troops at the base during their Christmas dinner. On New Year's Eve, the Obamas and their friends had their annual talent show. (Obama aides did not release details , but Time Magazine reported last year that a similar talent show at Camp David included Michelle Obama hula-hooping, while her husband joined a group of men who sang "You Are the Sunshine of My Life.")
The president stayed put for the most part in the small town of Kailua, where he rents a beachfront estate. He dined in downtown Honolulu once, at a favorite restaurant called Alan Wong's, which serves Hawaiian cuisine such as ginger-crusted onaga.
"What do we all do when we go back to our hometowns over the holidays?" said Charles Morrison, president of the East-West Center, a nonprofit based in Honolulu where Obama's sister Maya works. "The point is to relax with family and old friends, touch base with familiar things as much as you can when you're in his position."