HONOLULU — The place where President Obama vacations each winter is farther from Washington than almost any other place in the United States. So, it is not terribly surprising that less than 45 minutes after Congress passed a bill averting the “fiscal cliff” on Jan. 1, Obama was racing back here.
The president’s vacation with his family and friends had already been cut short by the protracted, painful negotiations in Washington over taxes and spending. Obama was eager to get away from it all and enjoy a few final days of rest before the next round of legislative battles begins.
“I think Hawaii for him is a place where he gets to recharge both physically and emotionally. The schedule is one that’s relaxing. The climate is warm like he likes it. And he’s surrounded constantly by family and the friends he grew up with,” said Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former press secretary and a longtime adviser. “It’s the perfect elixir for having had a long and busy year in national politics.”
The president was scheduled to leave Hawaii late Saturday, returning to Washington on Sunday a little before noon. He will have spent a total of nine days here, over two separate trips, and roughly 40 hours in the air going back and forth.
“Like any parent, the president enjoyed spending as much time with his family over the holidays as he could,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
The president first flew here Dec. 21, urging lawmakers to drink some eggnog and cool off over the Christmas holiday. Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11, rented a house overlooking the beach in the town of Kailua, on the east side of Oahu, Hawaii’s most-populous island, where Obama was born and spent much of his youth.
As has become his custom, Obama spent his time eating at Hawaii hot spots with family and friends, golfing with buddies for six-hour stretches and hanging out at home and around Oahu with his girls. He spent his first night in Hawaii out until 11:30, dining at Morimoto Restaurant Waikiki, owned by Masaharu Morimoto of “Iron Chef” fame.
The next day began with a memorial service for Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), whom Obama had previously called his “earliest political inspiration.” Following the service, which was at a veterans cemetery known as the Punchbowl, for the topographical imprint left by volcanic eruptions tens of thousands of years ago, Obama and his wife walked about a half-mile southeast to visit the grave of his grandfather Stanley Dunham, who served in World War II.
Obama went for a hike with his family later that day and then spent part of Dec. 24 with his family at the beach. Many of the president’s activities were confined to the Marine Corps base here, about a 10-minute drive from his rental home.
The Obamas’ Christmas activities are an established routine. On Christmas Eve, Obama calls members of the armed forces and his wife calls children tracking Santa’s whereabouts, before the family sits down for dinner. The next morning, they open Christmas gifts, eat breakfast and sing carols. Later in the day, the president and his wife meet with a few hundred service members at the Marine Corps base.
Yet, the holidays ended sooner for Obama than most. Less than five days after arriving, he left Hawaii to fly overnight back to Washington to engage in the fiscal cliff talks. The only family member who came with him was their Portuguese water dog, Bo, who strolled through Air Force One as weary White House staff and the accompanying press pool slept.
Back in Washington, Obama oversaw six days of frenzied negotiations. One of the personal blessings of winning the White House in 2008 for Obama was that he could finally spend most nights with his family; as a U.S. senator and Illinois state senator away from Chicago, that had often been difficult. But Obama spent New Year’s Eve without his family for the first time since he was elected president.
After 11 p.m. on New Year’s Day, before the ink was dry on a bill preventing tax hikes for most Americans while raising taxes on top earners, the president decamped for a return trip to Hawaii, arriving here just before 5 the next morning. Later that day, he received a copy of the fiscal-cliff bill and directed his staff in Washington to sign it using a secretive auto-pen process.
Obama usually takes two vacations a year: to Hawaii for Christmas and Martha’s Vineyard in August. This year, because of the reelection campaign, he skipped the August trip.
The second half of Obama’s Hawaii trip had a little more work on the schedule. Aside from the fiscal-cliff bill, he signed a defense bill and made calls to congressional leaders and to the governors of New York and New Jersey over funding bills to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy.
But for the most part, it was much like the first few days here. In an untucked polo shirt and jeans, he enjoyed green-and-red shaved ice with the girls, making sure they all had one of his favorite treats, even in the light rain.
He stayed up late Friday with friends at Nobu, an upscale restaurant — not going to sleep until well after midnight.
With the president’s plane set to depart late Saturday, Gibbs recalled a light moment he shared with Obama as Air Force One was preparing to lift off to fly back from Hawaii on a previous trip.
“When we left, I told him I question his judgment for leaving this place,” Gibbs recalled. “He smiled and said, ‘Yeah, I kind of sometimes do, too.’ ”