On Monday, when Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani visits Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland will once again serve as the venue for important geopolitical negotiations on seemingly intractable issues, a role it has played for more than seven decades.
But as Secretary of State John F. Kerry and other Cabinet members host the Afghan president, one major U.S. figure will not be present: President Obama.
The president’s absence is just one signal of how the role of the cloistered compound in Catoctin Mountain Park has changed under this president, a city dweller who prefers gym workouts and golf courses to hiking trips and fly-fishing expeditions.
For several of Obama’s predecessors, Camp David was a critical refuge from the public spotlight and a chance to spend time outdoors, as well as a forum for soft-touch presidential diplomacy.
For this president, its role has receded. When he wants to woo or entertain foreign leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping or Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Obama has opted for California’s Sunnylands retreat, which offers plenty of sunshine and an 18-hole golf course. When he’s looking to relax on his own, the woods are rarely his first choice.
Although the current first family does use the naval installation as a location for key celebrations, it is now used more for administrative events like staff retreats and other work-related meetings.
Shortly after Obama took office, first lady Michelle Obama said the “most unexpected and uniform advice” she had gotten from her predecessors was to go to Camp David “early and often.”
White House officials say the first lady — at times with her daughters — visits a fair amount. The president, however, has not warmed to the place in the same way as some previous commanders-in-chief. Obama has made 35 visits to Camp David since taking office, spanning all or part of 86 days, according to CBS News correspondent and informal White House chronicler and statistician Mark Knoller. At same point in his presidency, George W. Bush had made 119 visits covering all or part of 375 days.
During a 2010 White House dinner the Obamas had with a group of historians, one of the academics asked the president whether he had taken advantage of Camp David to avoid the pressure of the job. Michelle Obama interjected that the president was “an urban guy” not that taken with the place, according to multiple participants.
“Some presidents really like rustic, no-frills living, like FDR and Jimmy Carter,” said Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley, who has an upcoming book on Roosevelt’s relationship with the land. Of Obama, he added, “This president likes his golf.”
Shortly after Obama took office, his top aides identified Camp David as a setting that could be used to forge legislative deals, according to individuals involved in the discussions who asked for anonymity. But since the retreat often ranks as the last resort in any negotiation, and Republicans showed little interest in backing the administration’s most ambitious proposals, there was no opportunity to use it.
After the November midterm elections, however, the president began making overtures once again. The White House invited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to Camp David but he declined for scheduling reasons, according to individuals familiar with the matter.
One White House official, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal discussions, said the president plans to invite both Democratic and GOP lawmakers to Camp David at some point “to take advantage of the facilities for a few meetings in a more comfortable setting” in what the president has taken to describing as the “fourth quarter” of his presidency.
During his presidency, George W. Bush frequently spent weekends and major holidays at Camp David and occasionally invited lawmakers as part of his outreach to Congress. Duberstein Group president Dan Meyer, who ran White House legislative affairs for Bush’s last two years in office, said it made sense that Obama’s administration was eyeing it for the same purpose.
“Anytime you can get folks together outside of the normal routines, it helps to develop relationships and deepen relationships, and that’s always useful in this business,” Meyer said.
One senior administration official, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss internal White House deliberations, said Obama’s aides are aware of the powerful “symbolic value” of Camp David.
“This is a place where people come together to solve big problems,” said the official, who has visited the compound multiple times.
Monday’s meeting among Ghani, Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Kerry and Defense Secretary Ash Carter fits more neatly into the traditional use of Camp David. Dozens of world leaders have journeyed there since Franklin D. Roosevelt made it into a presidential retreat he dubbed “Shangri-La” in 1942. Only Obama, however, has hosted several at once, bringing G-8 leaders and four African heads of state there in May 2012. Obama will meet with Ghani at the White House on Tuesday.
Roosevelt directed his staff to look for a presidential retreat near Washington in March 1942, in part because he was eager to escape the city’s heat and because of the Secret Service’s concern that his tendency to use the presidential yacht, the USS Potomac, could leave him vulnerable to enemy attack. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration, working with the Civilian Conservation Corps, had constructed a few camps in western Maryland; Roosevelt chose Camp Number Three, or Camp Hi-Catoctin.
Anita McBride, who has worked in every Republican White House since Ronald Reagan, described it as “quiet, but it can be full of activity.” Each cabin has a list of offerings that range from the heated pool and full gym to a bowling alley, movie theater, tennis court, riding trails and skeet-shooting range. Obama drew headlines in 2013 when he mentioned in a New Republic interview “we do skeet shooting all the time” at the retreat, and the White House posted a photo as proof.
“It’s got everything you want to relax,” said McBride, who visited there multiple times as Laura Bush’s chief of staff and now works as an executive-in-residence at American University’s School of Public Affairs. She added that it allows the president “to be able to walk freely outdoors and do things you really couldn’t do within the 18 acres of the White House.”
And the fact that it remains such an exclusive club gives every trip there added allure. Everyone who visits the president there receives a guided tour and a certificate commemorating their visit; there’s also an extensive gift shop featuring mementos ranging from fleece clothing to coffee mugs.
“The last [remaining] kind of place that everyone wants to really see is Camp David,” the senior official said. “There is a cachet to it.”
Such cachet, in fact that when Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a speech to the American Camp Association Thursday in Atlantic City her longtime friend Jay Jacobs gave her a parting gift that spoke to her presidential ambitions: a gray sweatshirt that read “Camp David.” Clinton — who knows the enclave well — let out a laugh.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.