2014-08-29 / View From Here


When The President Goes On Vacation

Nine years ago this week, President George W. Bush ended his month long vacation at his ranch in Texas to come back to Washington to deal with Hurricane Katrina, which was devastating New Orleans. The vacation was already controversial as Mr. Bush's ranch in Texas had been picketed by antiwar protesters. While Mr. Bush's aides noted that the President could respond fully to issues during his sojourn, the vacation came under criticism as unseemly in time of a war in Iraq that was not going well.

Of course, after Mr. Bush returned to Washington, the handling of Katrina by his administration became extremely controversial, even if a good deal of the criticisms was over the top. (Many of the key mistakes were made at the local and state levels.) In any event, however, the preceding long vacation was likely quite unhelpful to Mr. Bush and cast him as disengaged from the nation's problems. The political damage was, of course, magnified when there were shortcomings in FEMA's disaster response. Indeed, Mr. Bush's standing never really recovered after Katrina.

Now, President Barack Obama is also taking a good deal of heat about his 16 day vacation at Martha's Vine-yard, and particularly his many games of golf. Mr. Obama evoked particularly pointed criticism when he played a round right after a press conference denouncing the savage beheading of an American reporter. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times turned her sarcasm on the President in a parody column, "The Golf Address", which began "Fore! Score? and several trillion rounds ago, our forecaddies brought forth...".

The negative perceptions of Presidential vacations and golf games are definitely not new. Dwight Eisenhower was criticized during his Presidency ("golfing and goofing in the White House") for his many vacation trips to hit the links. And there was grousing about Ronald Reagan spending too much time on horseback and Bill Clinton for excessively hanging out on vacation with rich donors.

Some of this criticism of presidential vacations and pastimes is unfair. Presidents need some time to unwind and regroup and golf is as good an activity as any other. We may not need a workaholic president constantly running from one crisis to another.

Vacations become troublesome when they emphasize a shortcoming of a leader. In the case of Mr. Bush, the combination of putting troops in harm's way and being on vacation for four or five weeks reinforced the narrative, especially after Katrina, of a president who was not sufficiently thoughtful or caring about the nation's problems. I remember writing that the time for vacations of that length was after Mr. Bush left the White House.

In President Obama's case, the vacation and golf games tend to reinforce a perception, and not just by his opponents, that he has largely checked out of his job. There were a great number of difficult news stories during Mr. Obama's vacation - the beheading, the related rapid rise of the militant Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, the racial tension and rioting in Missouri, the Ebola outbreak in Africa. As Washington Post political analyst Chris Cillizza, points out, "that series of events left the impression of a disconnected president, frustrated with both the expectations and the limitations inherent in being the nation's leader at this moment in history."

Mr. Obama may now wish that he cut his vacation short. But the best way that he can overcome the percep tion that he has checked out is by rec-ognizing that there is still much he can do. He is the leader of the world's only superpower and must influence events and not just passively "lead from behind". Domestically, the country needs him to engage with his opponents and not just his political allies. Mr. Obama's vacations will be much less controversial if he is viewed as a leader actively doing his best to bring peace and stability abroad and seeking some consensus at home

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