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Obama’s Hawaii Vacation Hangs on Settling Tax Cut Standoff

A deal to break a stalemate between the White House and House Republicans means President Barack Obama may be able to avoid a potentially loaded political decision: Whether to spend Christmas with his family.

Obama was scheduled to leave last weekend for his annual holiday break in his native Hawaii, where first lady Michelle Obama and the couple’s two daughters have already arrived. That plan was derailed after the Republican-controlled House rejected a Senate bill to continue the tax cut for two months to give both sides time to work out differences over extending it for a full year.

The White House has refused to give any hints as to when, or whether, Obama would join his family.

“We are obviously in a pretty fluid situation,” press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday.

House Speaker John Boehner said this afternoon he agreed on a plan to extend a U.S. payroll-tax cut past its Dec. 31 expiration, backing down under pressure from Senate Republicans and Obama.

Taking a break while the question of whether U.S. workers will see their take-home pay decline at the start of the year remains unresolved would carry a political risk for Obama at a time when his approval rating is rising and the 2012 presidential campaign is under way.

Republicans would “pound” on Obama were he to leave Washington a tax deal is sealed, Ron Bonjean, a Republican political consultant who was communications director for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, said.

‘High Ground’

“He has captured the rhetorical high ground” in the political debate, Bonjean said. “Once he goes to Hawaii, he’ll likely lose a lot of it” if the issue isn’t settled.

If Congress is able to complete the deal tomorrow morning, Obama might be able to get to spend Christmas in Hawaii.

Even before the tax cut stand-off came to a head, Obama had come under fire from Republicans for his summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, his yearly return to Hawaii and his weekend golf outings at military bases in the Washington area.

“It’s a shame that we’ve got a president who thinks that being hands-on on the economy means working on his golf grip,” former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said at a Dec. 10 debate among the Republican presidential candidates in Iowa.

That’s one of the burdens of the presidency, according to Allan Lichtman, presidential historian at American University in Washington.

An Old Story

Such criticism “is as old as the republic,” Lichtman said. “John Adams, our second president, was away from the White House months at a time.”

Two of Obama’s Republican predecessors, Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, were subject to criticism from Democrats over the time they spent at their ranches. Bush, for example, typically spent the month of August at his compound in Crawford, Texas.

Events do interrupt presidential travel.

Obama canceled a planned trip to Indonesia and Australia in March 2010 to focus on his getting his health-care initiative through Congress. He postponed the trip a second time while the government was grappling with the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in June of that year. He finally made the trip in November.

Bush cut short his Texas vacation in August 2005 after the federal government came under criticism for its lagging response to the damage caused when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

Vacation Time

Through his first 31 months in office, Obama spent 61 days on vacation, according to a CBS News count. Bush had taken 180 days at the same point and Reagan had taken 112 days, the CBS tally shows. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, had taken 28 days.

“There is no correlation between how you are ultimately viewed as president and how much time you have taken off,” Lichtman said.

Part of the problem for Obama is his destination.

“Hawaii is a terrible optic,” Bonjean said. “It looks like an ultimate destination vacation spot that millions of Americans would love to go to but can’t afford.”

Another Republican strategist, John Feehery, said that even by staying in Washington, Obama “can’t just sort of curse the darkness, he’s got to actually get stuff done.”

Shortened Trip

Shortening his Hawaii trip already has given Obama the opportunity to keep up pressure on congressional Republicans and drive home one of the themes he’s already using for his re-election campaign: that he’s looking out for the interests of middle-income Americans and that partisanship is holding up progress.

Prior to the announcement of a deal, Obama sought to make the point today as he and Boehner, an Ohio Republican, held dueling public appearances on the tax cut extension.

“So many of these debates in Washington end up being portrayed as which party is winning, which party is losing,” Obama said. “But what we have to remind ourselves of is this is about people.”

Lichtman and Chris Lehane, who was press secretary to former Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, agreed that any negative impact for Obama from leaving Washington would be short term.

“The public gets the idea that people go on vacation,” Lehane said. “Most people get that the president is never really on vacation but has the right to leave the White House.”

Lichtman said all the debate over presidential recreation may be counterproductive.

“Presidents do need time off,” he said. “They do need time away from the maelstrom. They do need time to think and reflect.”

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