ON MARTHA’S VINEYARD, Mass. —President Obama describes himself as a creature of habit. No matter where he is in the world, he works out every morning, usually at 7:30. He has pared his work wardrobe down to either blue or gray suits.
“My wife makes fun of how routinized I’ve become,” he told Vanity Fair magazine several years ago. “It’s not my natural state. Naturally, I’m just a kid from Hawaii.”
For almost two weeks here, Obama has brought that same minimalist ethic to his vacation. Now in his sixth year of visits to the island — he took one year off to run for reelection — the president is the equivalent of a vacationing Yeti. Many have had near brushes with the leader of the free world, but only a precious few have actually laid eyes on him.
For some on the Vineyard, who insist that the island is simply too sophisticated for celebrity-spotting, Obama’s near-invisibility is a point of pride. “The Vineyard really respects privacy,” said Chrissy Kinsman, who owns a small wholesale bakery called Pie Chicks, and recently took out a newspaper ad offering Obama a free strawberry rhubarb. “That’s why famous people come here.”
The reality, though, is that the president’s vacation has — with each passing year — grown smaller and smaller. So small, in fact, that it can barely be seen. Early in his presidency, Obama made regular visits with his wife and daughters to the Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven to load up on reading. But those jaunts fell off the schedule years ago.
Last year, Obama had to cut short his vacation because of crises in Iraq and riots in Ferguson, Mo. Still he managed to put in an appearance at the island’s annual Jazz & Blues Summerfest. This year, there have been no such crises, foreign or domestic. Obama skipped the music festival and instead made a playlist of the songs he’s listening to on Spotify, an online music-streaming service. The upshot: Those wanting to jam with Obama must do it virtually.
What has he been doing instead? He takes walks with his wife and daughters on the sprawling property that they are renting. The president, who once described his perfect day as catching waves and sipping soda at sunset on Waikiki, has frolicked a bit on private beaches. There have been a few nights out at restaurants, where a few dozen or more admirers will cluster outside to snap a photo of him leaving. He and the first lady attended former presidential adviser Vernon Jordan’s 80th birthday party, from which video surfaced of Hillary Rodham Clinton dancing with her husband. There were no Obama dancing videos this year.
Mostly though, he has played a LOT of golf. Obama has hit the links four times with professional basketball player Ray Allen, best known for his quiet demeanor and lethal three-point shot. And he has played once with former president Bill Clinton, who is best known around the Vineyard for causing traffic jams with his slow and sociable style of play on the course. On the former president’s slowest days, course rangers at Farm Neck Golf Club here have had to prod Clinton’s party to pick up the pace, said Tim Sweet, the course’s general manager. The first step is to wave red flags. Sometimes they’ll discreetly approach members of the former president’s party.
Do their entreaties work? “Yes. No. Not really,” Sweet said. “Well, maybe sometimes.”
Obama’s golf game, by contrast, is brisk and low-profile. On the course the Secret Service ensures that there is at least a one-hole separation between the president’s foursome and anyone else who might be playing, Sweet said.
No pictures of Obama putting hang in the course’s clubhouse or its offices. No plaques commemorate Farm Neck as the course favored by the sitting president. “We try to be as low-key and as accommodating as possible,” Sweet said. “Let me stress, once again, that low-key thing.”
The one time this summer that Obama played Farm Neck with Clinton and Jordan, they finished in well under four hours.
In past years there was a rush among local business owners and restaurateurs to catch Obama’s attention or land products in gift baskets allegedly bound for the first family. Martha’s Vineyard is full of budding entrepreneurs eager to become the next Black Dog or Vineyard Vines, big national brands launched on the island. There are massage-therapists-turned-pie-mavens, former-yoga-instructor-chocolatiers and an artist who is applying his aesthetic sensibilities to coffee roasting.
Bennett Coffey, the co-founder of Not Your Sugar Mamas, which makes nutrient-rich, dairy-free, organic chocolate bars, recalled printing up special labels designed to grab the attention of the president or first lady. “They said, ‘Hey Obama, we’re not your sugar mama,’ or something like that,” Coffey said. Another year, her chocolate chip cookies made it into a gift basket of local items that went to White House staffers.
Obama’s invisibility, however, has dampened her presidential dreams. This year, she’s hoping that Obama or the first lady — a big backer of locally produced, healthful foods — might stumble on her chocolate in a Vineyard store or at one of the local farmers’ markets. So far, the Obamas haven’t been spotted doing much, if any, shopping.
“It’s sorta like getting Oprah’s attention,” Coffey said.
“I guess we believe in miracles,” said Kyleen Keenan, Coffey’s business partner.
Presidential-themed newspaper ads, which typically pitch products directly to the first family, have also dropped off. The big Obama ad in MV Times this year came from the National Association of Government Employees, asking the president to intervene in the union’s negotiations with Veterans Affairs.
“I’m sorry to bother you on your well-earned vacation,” it began.
Other signs of Obama’s presence on the island have been remarkably subtle. Amity Harris, 9, said her kayak camp was told to keep out of some of the local bodies of water around the Obama residence. Bicyclists wait for the presidential motorcade to speed past before they can cross the road. Some wave, but just as many cyclists seem to pause to check their cellphones.
Then there are stories of the White House kitchen staff being spotted in town picking up produce and fresh coffee beans.
Robert Skydell, 61, sells picked-to-order kale, artisanal cheeses and what may be the country’s most expensive peaches from a roadside stand in front of his Fiddlehead Farm. The peaches, which are flown in from Placerville, Calif., are dense and juicy and sell for about $8 to $10 per golden orb, depending on weight.
“They are all perfect,” Skydell said, “and the price reflects it.”
Last year, Skydell said, a member of the White House kitchen staff visited his stand to buy a single peach, which he said was for the president. Skydell asked the White House staffer why he didn’t buy four or five peaches at a time and save the repeated trips.
“We don’t want to spoil him,” Skydell recalled the man saying.
What about this year? No peach runs, Skydell said.