President Obama heads to Maine this weekend for a short summer vacation with his wife and daughters. It is a hallowed Washington tradition: Every year, presidents go on vacation, and every year, their political opponents lambaste them for demonstrating insufficient focus on America’s problems.
But no matter where they go and what their trips are called, presidents are never really disconnected from their job the way a typical white-collar professional is when he packs up his beach towel and powers down his Blackberry.
“The president is always on call, 24/7, if there is a crisis,” says presidential historian Robert Dallek. “They’re lucky if they go on vacation and there’s no crisis, and then they get some downtime. But they’re always on call.”
For one thing, the president can reach his principal advisers at a moment’s notice, and many of them remain on duty during presidential vacations. Sometimes, aides will even accompany the commander in chief on a holiday – Henry Kissinger was a frequent guest at President Richard Nixon’s compound in Key Biscayne, Fla. The president’s daily briefings on national security and the economy happen as though he had never left the friendly confines of the White House.
High-tech, secure videoconferencing equipment also follows Mr. Obama and other presidents wherever they go. Obama will be renting his Bar Harbor vacation home this weekend, but historically, the White House and the Secret Service have had wide scope to “improve” presidential second homes. The program initially focused on enhancing security, but now permanent presidential retreats, such as George W. Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch, are wired with communications gear.
Some presidents have gone overboard with the renovations – famously, Mr. Nixon’s Florida residence received millions of dollars in upgrades, including the addition of a floating helipad.
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.
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.”