KAILUA, Hawaii — President Obama confessed in his year-end news conference that he was “eager to skip town.” He did just that this weekend, jetting to his birthplace of Hawaii for his annual surfside respite, recharging before plunging into what he hopes will be a more productive 2014.
The president, smiling and visibly relaxed, stepped off Air Force One and onto a warm and breezy Honolulu tarmac shortly before midnight Friday. He was accompanied by his wife, Michelle; their two daughters, Malia and Sasha; his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson; and the family’s Portuguese water dogs, Bo and Sunny.
The presidential motorcade ferried the Obamas across Oahu, the state’s most populous island, to the well-to-do oceanfront neighborhood of Kailua, where as in years past they have rented a private home for what this time will be a 17-day holiday vacation.
For the sixth straight year, Obama plans to spend Christmas and New Year’s in Hawaii, gathering with extended family and friends — and, yes, perfecting his golf game. So it was that Obama hit the links on Saturday afternoon at a Marine Corps base in Kaneohe Bay with trip director Marvin Nicholson, White House chef Sam Kass and friend Bobby Titcomb.
Aides said Obama will receive daily national security briefings and updates on the troubled health-care implementation as key deadlines approach. As always, events may intervene, but aides said the president is looking forward to a period of uninterrupted rest and relaxation.
At Friday’s news conference, which concluded a troubling 2013 that saw Obama’s job approval and personal favorability ratings fall to their lowest point ever, Obama said he hoped to spend the holidays thinking about how to rebound in 2014.
“The end of the year is always a good time to reflect and see what can you do better next year,” Obama told reporters. “That’s how I intend to approach it. I’m sure that I will have even better ideas after a couple days of sleep and sun.”
Vacations always have been an essential component of the presidency. George W. Bush cleared brush at his ranch in Crawford, Tex.; Ronald Reagan rode horses in Santa Barbara, Calif.; John F. Kennedy went sailing off Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
“The rebooting process is essential,” said Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Rice University. “He’s got to get away to think. That’s the most underrated attribute of what we need in our president — to think.”
Brinkley, who has written biographies of several presidents, is at work on a book about Franklin D. Roosevelt. He said Roosevelt spent roughly half his presidency out of town, believing it was essential for presidents to “get out of the bubble of Washington.”
“He would take his yacht and he’d go everywhere — the Galapagos Islands, to wild Florida to just disappear,” Brinkley said. “He went all the way to Anchorage and to the Aleutian Islands. He would just disappear for weeks on end, and people would come in and he would sign papers. These were very elaborate vacations, but he felt they allowed him to think.”
Aides said Obama has no public events or official business planned in Hawaii, although he does plan to consider possible reforms to the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance programs.
If past years are any indication, Obama will probably spend a lot of time on the golf course and Kailua’s white-sand beaches. He and the first lady typically go to a nearby Marine Corps base for morning workouts, and they usually visit with service members and their families to wish them “Mele Kalikimaka,” Hawaiian for “Merry Christmas.”
Although the Obamas spend much of their time secluded at their private rented estate, which is heavily guarded by Secret Service agents, they have been known to venture out for shave ice (the Hawaiian version of a snow cone) or Spam musubi (a seaweed-wrapped delicacy). The Obamas often join friends for dinner at some of their favorite restaurants, which include Alan Wong’s, Morimoto and Nobu.
A small coterie of advisers accompanied the president for the 4,800-mile trip here, including deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, spokesmen Josh Earnest and Eric Schultz, and Nicholson.
Greeting Obama when he landed at Hickam Field was Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D), an old friend of Obama’s late parents, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). Gabbard documented the president’s arrival on Instagram with the caption “Welcome home, Mr. President” and posed for a picture in front of Air Force One with Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, and her husband, Konrad Ng.
For Obama, Hawaii is not only his birthplace and boyhood home. It also is where some of his most spiritual moments have occurred. In December 2008, Obama and Soetoro-Ng memorialized their grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who had died of cancer on the eve of that year’s election, by tossing a lei and scattering her ashes into the ocean off a rocky bluff.
“The natural drama of where he’s at in Hawaii brings a bit of solitude,” Brinkley said. “He can get lost in the power of the winds there.”