Obama on vacation! What all the carping is really about.

Everybody needs downtime – even presidents. But President Obama is still taking grief for his 'working vacation' on Martha's Vineyard. And it all comes down to one specific activity. 

Steven Senne/AP
President Barack Obama smiles as he gives a pat on the arm to Cyrus Walker, cousin of White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, while golfing at Vineyard Golf Club, in Edgartown, Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Tuesday.

It’s an annual ritual: The president goes on vacation, the opposition party complains that he’s “fiddling while Rome burns,” or some-such, and the media have a story.

This year, there was a slight twist. It was liberal Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank who gave voice to the usual Republican carping about President Obama taking his vacation at a time of upheaval.  

“Obama stood on the South Lawn on Saturday updating Americans on the new bombing campaign in Iraq – and then he boarded Marine One for a two-week trip to Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Milbank wrote Monday. “There, half an hour after arriving at his vacation home, he was already on his way to a golf course.”

This theme is so tired, it almost makes one wonder if Milbank just couldn’t think of anything else to write about that day. Obama’s defense – as always, and for all presidents – is that the nation’s chief executive is never truly on vacation. He brings top advisers with him, gets his daily briefings, and still has all the powers of the presidency, including making orders as commander-in-chief.

And, presidential scholars note, we should all be grateful to see our president getting out of Washington for a little R&R. Everyone needs to recharge their batteries, including the president.

Obama isn’t even taking the whole two weeks away from Washington. He’s returning to the nation’s capital on Sunday for two days of “in person” meetings at the White House, then heading back to the Vineyard. Still no word on why or with whom he is meeting.

At a briefing Wednesday on the swanky Massachusetts island, deputy White House press secretary Eric Schultz deflected questions on the unusual “vacation from vacation,” though he did reveal that Obama will meet with Vice President Biden while he’s back in Washington.  

As for who will be traveling with the president – a possible clue as to the subject of the meetings – Mr. Schultz said, cryptically, “some of us will be returning, some of us will be staying.”

“Eric Schultz is staying,” he added, playfully.

The press then played 20 Questions in a different vein, looking for details about how the rest of the First Family is spending its time away. What are they doing at the house? Have they been reading? Has the first lady been exercising? Working out? Have they gone to the beach?

“Talk a little bit about what their day is like?” a reporter asked.

Schultz retreated into the standard recitation of what an American president does while on vacation:  “As you've seen, the president remains engaged, getting briefs, speaking with foreign leaders, updating you all on ongoing situations.”

“But I also can say the president is very much enjoying some downtime with his family,” Schultz said. “As you know, they've dined out at some of Martha's Vineyard's wonderful establishments. They've also had a few meals in. The president attended a fundraiser Monday evening to help keep the Democratic majority in the United States Senate. And as you know, he'll be attending a social gathering this evening.”

That’s not just any social gathering – it’s a birthday party for Ann Jordan, wife of Washington macher Vernon Jordan, and both the Obamas and Clintons will be attending. The “hug” watch is on, as Hillary Rodham Clinton has put out word that she looks forward to “hugging it out” with the president after her recent criticism of his foreign policy. The media will have to find out second hand if there’s an actual hug. Press aren’t invited.

Schultz also threw in a mention of Obama’s favorite hobby, which could have gone without saying: “You may have noticed the president has already enjoyed a few rounds of golf, and I suspect you could see more of that to come.”

Reporters tried again to get Schultz to overshare on the rest of the first family’s down time, but all they got was a nugget on the Obama daughters’ itinerary.

“I can tell you that Sasha arrives next week and Malia will be traveling back with the president on Sunday,” Schultz said.

In defending the president’s vacation, Schultz didn’t resort to comparing Obama’s “days away” with his predecessor’s. That might have looked overly defensive. But the numbers, side by side, are revealing. Obama so far has taken 20 “vacations” lasting 2 to 15 days, and has spent all or part of 129 days on “vacation,” according to Yahoo News, citing data collected by Mark Knoller of CBS News.  

George W. Bush, by this point in his presidency, had taken 58 trips to his ranch near Crawford, Texas, for all or part of 381 days, according to Mr. Knoller. And he had taken seven trips to the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Me., for an additional 26 days away. In fairness, President Bush had used his ranch frequently for visits by world leaders, Yahoo notes.

But on the golf count, the picture is different. So far, Obama has gone golfing 186 times as president; Mr. Bush went a total of 24 times. Bush quit playing golf in 2003, saying it seemed inappropriate with American troops fighting abroad.

That’s the real nub of Milbank’s critique: optics. It’s not about the vacation, it’s about the golf. 

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