President Barack Obama, on pace to log 40 hours on the golf course during his two-week vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, is making sure to show people that he’s still at work.
Amid three golf outings and a trip to the beach in his first four days on the Massachusetts island, Obama has stepped before the microphones to talk about the upheaval in Iraq, and made six calls to world leaders about that and other global crises.
Each call merited a press release, and he’s also issued a statement on the death of actor Robin Williams and another urging calm in Ferguson, Missouri, where rioting broke out after police fatally shot an unarmed teenager.
The last three mornings this week, White House spokesman Eric Schultz let it be known that the president got briefings on global hotspots from National Security Adviser Susan Rice. A picture of one such meeting was posted on Twitter by White House photographer Pete Souza.
The flurry of activity is as much a part of any president’s vacation as is the inevitable criticism from political opponents, no matter which party is in control of the White House. As Obama was beginning his fourth full day on Martha’s Vineyard, the Republican National Committee released a YouTube video poking at Obama for golfing “despite the crises going on around the world.”
“That’s why even when presidents are on vacation the staff goes out of its way to show photographs of the president getting briefings,” said John Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.
Obama’s staff rejected criticism of the president taking a break from Washington. When a president leaves the capital, they said, he brings along advisers and all the equipment he needs to carry out his duties. A helicopter and Air Force One are always on standby.
“The president is the president wherever he goes,” Schultz told reporters today. “He travels with a wide array of communications equipment, and we also travel with a staff that allows us to have robust operational capabilities.”
After enumerating the meetings and phone calls Obama has had during the trip, Schultz said, “There’s never a perfect time for the president to take some time away with his family, but I think we can also all agree that it’s valuable to recharge your batteries.”
“I just don’t think the American people begrudge their president for taking some down time with his family,” he said.
Presidential vacations started to draw more scrutiny during Ronald Reagan’s presidency as critics, primarily Democrats, accused him of not spending enough time at work, Pitney said.
Instant news and social media probably encourage the criticism, Pitney said.
“In the age of Internet news, people need something to tweet about. Criticizing the president for taking vacation is one way to fill the Twitter vacuum,” Pitney said.
Republican Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, himself on a congressional recess, did that yesterday, tweeting that Obama “Tells soldiers to go to Iraq, meanwhile he goes to Golf.”
Such criticism only rarely damages a president, Pitney said, citing the example of Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush. Bush didn’t let White House business interrupt his annual August retreat at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
In 2002, less than a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush met in Crawford with his defense advisers and Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. as he made the case for the eventual U.S. invasion of Iraq. He also visited his family’s compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, and Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.
“Normally, it doesn’t have much impact on the general public because people think the president does need to take time off now and then,” Pitney said.
“It did hurt Bush during Katrina,” Pitney said, referring to the hurricane that slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, while Bush was at his Texas ranch. “It wasn’t just that he was on vacation, it was that he didn’t immediately visit the scene and that picture of him looking down from Air Force One was hurtful.”
In five and half years as president, Obama has spent all or part of 125 days on vacation, spread over 19 trips ranging from two to 15 days, according to a tally kept by CBS News’s Mark Knoller.
By comparison, George W. Bush at the same point in his presidency had taken 58 trips to his ranch in Crawford for all or part of 381 days and seven trips totaling 26 days to his family’s Maine compound, according to Knoller’s figures.
Obama yesterday spent his third afternoon with a foursome of men golfing on the island, a vacation destination of the well-heeled. On the one day so far he didn’t golf since arriving Aug. 9, the president relaxed at a secluded beach with his family.
News photographers and reporters got a glimpse at Obama’s golfing soon after his arrival, on the first hole of the Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.
The first chance to hear from Obama was the next day, when he made a statement about U.S. involvement in Iraq and to encourage the formation of a new government in that country.
Obama originally planned to spend two consecutive weeks at the secluded house he’s renting in Chilmark. Last week, the White House announced plans for him to return to Washington next week for two days for meetings with senior aides, after which he’ll return to the island.