WASHINGTON, August 11, 2014 – After updating America on the airstrikes he’s ordered in Iraq, President Obama returned Saturday to Martha’s Vineyard for a two-week family vacation.
Presidential vacations and recreation are an easy target for a president’s critics. As his public approval ratings fell in 2003 during the Iraq war, President Bush was forced to give up golf for the rest of his time in office. He did not give up vacations, however, logging more vacation time at his Crawford, Texas ranch than Obama has logged on his vacations.
Perception is important here, but first consider the realities. A president travels with an entourage that includes more than his chef and the Secret Service. Obama has taken National Security Advisor Susan Rice with him to Martha’s Vineyard, as well as other aids whose job is to advise him on policy, not see to his comfort. According to White House spokesman Josh Earnest, “The president will be traveling to Massachusetts with an array of communications equipment and national security advisers and others to ensure that he has the capacity to make the kinds of decisions that are required for the Commander-in-Chief,”
Obama conducted business in Air Force One on his way to the island, according to his aids, including making phone calls to European leaders like French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Given the government’s mobile communications capacity and the fact that Congress is on vacation, there is little need for the president to be in Washington.
Nor is there any reason for Obama to bury himself in an office all day long while he’s gone; the president sets administration policy, but there’s no reason for him to spend his time micromanaging it. President Jimmy Carter immersed himself in the minutiae of governance, and there’s no evidence that he or the country profited from it. Ronald Reagan took daily naps and avoided minutiae like the plague, yet managed a reasonably successful presidency: According to a C-SPAN survey of presidential historians – a more liberal lot than your average voter – Reagan’s presidency was the 10th best of the 43 ex-presidents. The public rates him as the best of the 20th century.
If there is no practical need for a president to be in Washington most of the time, or to be working all day even when he is in Washington, there are political reasons not to look like you and members of your administration are having a good time when the rest of the country isn’t. Bush’s golf games had to be eliminated; Nancy Reagan took grief for buying new china for the White House with private donations; Condoleeza Rice was excoriated for buying new shoes while New Orleans lay devastated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Obama benefits from a relatively much more friendly press than Reagan or Bush had – only 7 percent of journalists polled are Republicans, 61 percent self-identify as liberal, and over 90 percent voted for Obama – and so relatively little attention is paid to the shopping habits of his cabinet members or the price of champagne at his fundraisers. Even so, it’s hard to ignore his time in Hawaii or on Martha’s Vineyard.
There’s no question that the Obama’s have enjoyed the travel perks of the presidency. President and Mrs. Obama seem to think little of taking separate planes on their travels. Bush may have enjoyed Crawford every bit as much as the Obamas enjoy Martha’s Vineyard, but the optics of a mesquite-covered, dry, dusty ranch near Waco are much different than those of exclusive beaches and lush golf courses.
President Bush took the sort of vacations that most of us would want to avoid, to a place accessible to any middle class family within a thousand miles that would want to go there. President Obama takes vacations to a place that very few middle-class people could afford. Martha’s Vineyard is exclusive, an enclave for the rich; Waco is middle America, as non-exclusive as America can be.
Barack Obama probably works every bit as much as George Bush did, and probably more than Ronald Reagan did. But if every president travels in a style inaccessible to even most of the very wealthy, Obama underscores and italicizes the point. He’s above us, he doesn’t need to worry himself with our concerns, and he will live as large as he believes he deserves.
Criticism of a president’s vacations is politics, but the vacations themselves make a political statement. FDR’s vacations were those of a patrician New Yorker, a president who believed in noblesse oblige, but claimed the “noblesse” as his birthright. Bush vacationed like an anti-establishment Texan, however establishment his family is. Clinton vacationed like a Hollywood star, and seemed genuinely surprised that anyone cared that he tied up LAX so he could get his hair styled on Air Force One. Obama vacations as if the best were his due, where commoners don’t go.
How Obama vacations says something about the man. It has no policy implications beyond that. We should only hope that he doesn’t take to announcing military strikes in his golf shoes.