President Obama’s defenders are angry and some of their scorn for his critics is justified. Everybody, even a president, is entitled to a vacation. But the problem this week isn’t just that the Obamas have left Washington for the friendly embrace of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s the arrogant assumption on the part of the White House that the president is exempt from even making a show of demonstrating his awareness that the world is falling to pieces on his watch.
As Lawrence Knutson writes today in Politico, the president is never entirely on vacation wherever he goes. The occupant of the White House lives, as Ronald Reagan used to say, “above the store” and even when they leave it for ranches, beaches, or other retreats, they bring the business with them in the form of armies of aides who are there to ensure that the government continues to run smoothly. Presidents have been leaving the seat of government to spend time at either their own homes or resorts since the time of George Washington. And their critics have never shied away from abusing them for doing so, even when such comments are transparently partisan in nature. Democrats pile on Republican presidents for taking breaks and the GOP returns the favor with both sides conveniently forgetting their lack of outrage when one of their one was the target.
But even if I agree that the routine carping about presidential vacations is hypocritical and off the point, there is something to the rumblings about the Obamas that goes above and beyond the normal grousing as well as the run-of-the-mill hysteria that he inspires in certain sectors of the political right.
The problem with the Obama vacation is both the habits of this particular president and bad timing.
While no one can say that Obama—or any president for that matter—doesn’t work hard, he has a habit of acting as if the normal rules of political behavior don’t apply to him. This president has spent more days golfing than any of his recent predecessors. While George W. Bush spent more days away from the White House—principally at his Texas ranch or at the family compound at Kennebunkport, Maine, both of which functioned routinely as little White Houses—Obama has never shown he cares much about the optics of being seen recreating while terrible things are happening. Bush stopped playing golf in 2003 after the war in Iraq began principally because he believed it didn’t look right for the president to be strolling the links while Americans faced death abroad. Obama has no such compunctions.
The timing is also a problem. It can be argued that there is something bad happening somewhere on the globe every day of the year. But there is something particularly egregious about Obama loafing around while the successful outcome in the Iraq War that he inherited from Bush is transformed into a victory for Islamist terrorists.
As even his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton noted this past weekend, the disaster in Iraq is a direct consequence of decisions that Obama has made. The rise and spread of the ISIS caliphate wouldn’t have been possible without Obama’s choice to bail on Iraq. For him to treat this catastrophe for both human rights and U.S. interests as not worth changing his schedule over—even as he ordered U.S. air crews into action to launch strikes against the terrorists—is simply bad optics.
It wouldn’t have cost him much to delay his trip, even for a day or two, to be seen consulting with military leaders and advisors over this issue. But like everything else about Obama, it appears that he believes his historic status means he doesn’t play by the same rules other politicians have to live by.
While, like all presidents, Obama is entitled to some vacation time, postponing the getaway would have demonstrated both sincerity and a willingness to take responsibility for his own mistakes.
Losing a round or two of golf just to show the world and an American people who have already begun to dismiss Obama as the lamest of lame ducks that he is on the job would not have been a tragedy for the president or his family. Moreover, given the cushy nature of presidential retirement, it’s not unfair to tell commanders-in-chief that they should postpone most of their time off to the period when they leave the White House and begin their permanent post-White House vacation. While the responsibilities they must shoulder are crushing, the perks of presidential life are such that no one need waste much sympathy on Obama giving up a bit of his free time to look like he cares about Iraq and the other international crises that is unable or unwilling to do much about.