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Presidential Vacation Poses Image Risks in a Down Economy

Presidential Vacation Poses Image Risks in a Down Economy

By Scott Conroy - August 18, 2010


Among the political professionals and journalists unfortunate enough to find themselves stuck in Washington in August, a tendency to overanalyze the president's vacation plans has become as predictable as the sweltering late summer haze.

Few would argue that the occupant of what may be the most demanding job on the planet does not deserve some time away to decompress, but the length and venue of the traditional presidential August vacation have long been ripe for disparagement, and this year figures to be no different.

First Lady Michelle Obama's much-criticized trip to Spain earlier this month served as a reminder that anything reeking of over-the-top luxuriousness in a presidential family vacation makes for particularly enticing fodder to the opposition during tough economic times.

But as the First Family prepares to embark upon a ten-day trip to Martha's Vineyard on Thursday, it is worth noting that President Obama's time away from the White House has been far less than his predecessor's.

According to CBS News correspondent Mark Knoller, who doubles as the unofficial White House press corps statistician, this Martha's Vineyard jaunt will be Obama's 22nd vacation trip (including Camp David visits) since taking office, and he has spent all or part of 68 days of his presidency on such excursions.

At the same juncture of his presidency, George W. Bush had taken 57 vacation trips, which took up all or part of 227 days.

Still, Knoller points out that the notion of a "presidential vacation" is something close to an oxymoron.

"No president is ever really on vacation," Knoller said. "Bush had the duties as president at his ranch as much as if he were in the Situation Room back at the White House. [With] Obama, he's no more ‘on vacation' in Bar Harbor, Maine, than in the Roosevelt Room."

Of course, this being Washington, that realty is often trumped by the politics of perception.

Former Clinton advisor Dick Morris famously pushed his boss to travel to national parks during his first term in office. But the non-outdoorsy president never seemed comfortable at the poll-tested vacation venue of Wyoming.

"I was told the staff had difficulties finding pictures of him looking like he was having a good time," U.S. News and World Report's Kenneth Walsh recalled of Clinton's two trips there.

Walsh, a longtime White House correspondent and author of From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats, recalled that President Reagan was particularly adamant about spending a month at his Santa Barbara ranch, even during the recession of 1981-1982.

Reagan insisted to his underlings that the more time he spent in California, the longer he would live-a difficult point against which to launch a compelling counterargument.

"His staff would be worried-especially during the recession-that it would look like he was insensitive," Walsh said. "There was criticism that he was the rich man's president, but what Reagan felt is that he had to go to the ranch to clear his mind and to get away from Washington."

Walsh recalled traveling with the White House press corps to Reagan's ranch and seeing the president only once over the course of an entire stay.

"Part of the reason for that is he didn't want to have a lot of visible coverage of his vacation, and other presidents don't understand that distinction-the optics," Walsh said.

With his mastery of presidential imagery on full display (he signed the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 outside at his ranch, dressed in cowboy boots and blue jeans), Reagan was able to mitigate any concerns that he was relaxing while everyday Americans were struggling through economic hardship.

By contrast, President George H.W. Bush did himself no political favors whenever he was photographed cruising around on his pleasure boat off of Kennebunkport, Maine, during the early 90s economic recession.

The experiences of Reagan and Bush, Sr., certainly hold lessons for the current White House on how to manage a presidential vacation while millions of Americans are looking for jobs. But administration officials aren't giving away much about what will be on the First Family's agenda.

"There will be some hiking, some time at the beach, some time at the ice cream store-all the sort of things you do when you're at Martha's Vineyard," deputy press secretary Bill Burton told reporters on Tuesday. "You enjoy the people and the good food."

That is, of course, unless something unforeseen happens, which is a given whenever the President of the United States spends significant time out of town.

During last year's Martha's Vineyard trip, Obama had to take unexpected time away from the golf course in order to eulogize late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy in Boston and nominate Ben Bernanke to a second term at the Federal Reserve.

Burton joked that any reporters traveling on this year's trip should prepare to work from dawn to dusk without enjoying any of the pleasures of an island stay.

"I'm just trying to set expectations appropriately," Burton said. "I know what I said before the last time we went to Martha's Vineyard, and it turned out a little bit differently."

While the Obamas will certainly find time to mingle with locals and other vacationers, it is safe to assume that the president won't be seen in public as much as the press would like.

"Part of the reason they go to Martha's Vineyard is there's a lot of estates up there that the president can go to and be secluded," Walsh said. "You might see them going in and out of restaurants, but I would suspect they're going to stay pretty much to themselves. And politically and public relations-wise, that's probably smart."

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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