Thursday, August 25, 2011


There has been a lot of argument this week over the First Family's current vacation on Martha's Vineyard.  Liberals argue that all presidents take vacations, they need vacations, and how dare anyone begrudge him a vacation! (and besides, the eeeevil Bush took, like, twice as many!!!1!)  Many conservative pundits have agreed with this argument, and for good reason.  Presidents never really take vacations.  Their staff travel with them everywhere (thus incurring a goodly chunk of the expense) and they are constantly being briefed - even on the golf course.  It is a ridiculously stressful job and no matter who is in the White House, a little time away from the official residence is understandable.

(On a side note: it doesn't really resonate, though, when he promises a new jobs plan...but we have to wait until he comes back from vacation to unveil it.  What?  Are you kidding? Granted, the August recess is rather long, but this isn't a tv show where there have to be cliffhangers to keep people tuned in.  It's real life and we're dealing with 9.1% unemployment here)

But let's put this in perspective, shall we? 

Yes,  George W. Bush spent a good deal of time of vacation - certainly more than President Obama at this point in his presidency (although the claims of only 26 days in Obama's three years in office is incorrect - that number was for his first year alone).  It is important to note that he went to either Camp David or his ranch in Texas for his vacations.  It should also be noted that several of those trips to the ranch were diplomatic or otherwise official business, not just pure pleasure.  An invitation to the ranch was a coveted thing back in the day, even for heads of state.  But even then, his vacation numbers are pretty high, and he got duly thwacked for it in the press. 

The thing is, aside from the travel expense of Air Force One and all that entails (can someone explain to me why the Obamas had to take two separate planes, four hours apart, for this trip instead of flying together?), Bush's vacations were relatively cheap for the taxpayers, as he and his staff were ensconced on his ranch.  This meant no buying up of entire floors of hotels, no room service, no inconvenience for other vacationers.  For the Bushes, the problem was the amount of time spent 'on vacation', not the expense of it.  Comparing the two is apples and oranges, but every liberal you discuss this issue with will bring up ad nauseum how many days Bush spent on vacation to keep from talking about the costs involved.  It doesn't matter what the true issue is.  They know which arguments they can win, and those are the arguments they are sticking with.

The First Lady is not immune from criticism either on this issue.  This Daily Mail article skewers Michelle Obama's expensive vacation tastes, so that naturally brings up the question of former First Lady Laura Bush's vacation habits in contrast.  Unfortunately for Mrs. Obama, she doesn't compare quite as favorably as she'd no doubt like.  It turns out that Laura Bush took a girls-only trip every year of her husband's presidency.   But whereas First Lady Michelle Obama's idea of a getaway with friends involves glitzy, paparazzi infested five-star resorts in Spain, Mrs. Bush preferred to quietly meet with old friends and go...camping

It's not the fact that the Obama's are vacationing that rankles - quite frankly many conservatives see their being away from DC for a few weeks as a welcome respite, if nothing else - it's where they are doing it, and with whom.  The Vineyard screams old money and privilege and in this economy, where many, many people are not only not taking vacations, but have no jobs from which to vacate, it really hits a sour note.

Expensive, extravagant vacations do not send out an "I feel your pain" vibe, especially when the public is on the hook for a large portion of the cost.  If the President or his staff were at all concerned with optics, they would have had the First Family vacation at Camp David.  It offers a lot for a young, active family - horseback riding, basketball, bowling, tennis, swimming, hiking, skeet shooting, even golf - with all the comforts of a top-notch resort and the added bonus of the appropriate optics for a man presiding over two (three? four?) wars and a down economy.  There is ample space for staff and Secret Service, it's secure and, most importantly, it's already paid for.

Camp David has been a favorite of Presidents since it was converted into a presidential retreat by FDR in 1942.  In times of war and peace alike, presidents vacationed there, cushioned in the lap of secure luxury.   True, Reagan loved nothing more than to vacation in exclusive, expensive Santa Barbara, but when he did, he was staying at his own ranch.  JFK frequently vacationed at expansive family homes in the elite stomping grounds of not just Martha's Vineyard, but posh Palm Beach Florida as well.  But President Obama does not have a family spread at the Vineyard, and while people are understanding about going home for vacation (even if home is a wealthy 'compound' or, say, Hawai'i), he has no roots there, no reason for the expense aside from the fact that they simply want to vacation at the Vineyard.  If they had decided to scrap their plans for the Vineyard this year and vacationed instead at Camp David citing sympathy for the suffering of their fellow Americans, there would probably have been an awful lot less grumbling and they might have even managed to turn it into a PR coup. 

Unfortunately, our president and his lady - chic, cool, hip young urbanites that they are - require more public digs, and damn the optics.  It's hard to imagine the level of headache this is for the Secret Service.  It's easy, however, to imagine the level of cost this incurs, and it's also easy to imagine who is picking up the bulk of the tab.   

The problem for the president is that, in his quest for reelection, he is trying to persuade the American people that he, too, is a simple man of the people - that he feels their pain and is sharing their sacrifice.  It's hard to paint someone who is hobnobbing with the elite in the poster town for wealth and privilege as an 'everyman' when the real everyman is taking a staycation (code for a week on the sofa with Netflix) and thanking their lucky stars that they have a job.  For now, at least.

Which is a concern the president might be more sympathetic with next summer.



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