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Obama's vacation: Time with the family ... and the nuclear codes

Obama's vacation in Maine will be a short one. But no matter where they go, presidents never really leave their job the way a typical white-collar professional does when he packs his beach towel and powers down his Blackberry.

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If all the efforts to make the presidency portable still aren’t enough, Air Force One is always on standby to whisk the president away if needed. Two months ago, Obama took a day out of his Memorial Day weekend in Chicago to fly south and examine firsthand the handling of the Gulf oil spill.

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Mr. Dallek recalls that when President Dwight Eisenhower showed John Kennedy around the White House after the 1960 election, Eisenhower showed the president-elect a special button that would call a helicopter to the South Lawn within seconds. That kind of rapid response follows the president everywhere, and it has only gotten better over time.

“That was 50 years ago,” Dallek says. “Now, it’s pretty instantaneous.”

There are occasional cases of presidents truly going AWOL during vacations, but they are few and far between in the modern era. Nixon would sometimes drink himself into a stupor on holidays, according to some presidential historians, leaving Kissinger and other aides to make key decisions in his absence. But since the US became a global power, the days of presidents spending eight consecutive months outside the capital – as John Adams did in 1799 – have disappeared.

Obama has spent all or part of 65 days on vacation during his presidency thus far, according to Mark Knoller, a CBS news reporter who scrupulously tallies presidential vacation time. Mr. Knoller's tally shows that President Bush had 120 full or partial vacation days by this point in his first term. But even Knoller acknowledges that “vacation” might be a misnomer when discussing presidential trips.

“The president is never really able to take a vacation from his job,” Knoller told NPR in 2005. “The problems and responsibilities of his office certainly follow him wherever he is.”