Obama's break from vacation: How unusual is that?

Other presidents – especially George W. Bush – have left vacation to attend to business at the White House or elsewhere. But Obama's two-day diversion to Washington for 'meetings' is unusual.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden (l.) meet with members of the National Security Council, Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. Obama took a break in the middle of his Martha's Vineyard vacation to return to Washington for meetings with advisers on the US military campaign in Iraq and tensions between police and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.

Why did President Obama leave his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard and come back to the White House for two days?

The official reason is “meetings.” Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden had their regular daily briefing Monday morning, then met with the National Security Council to discuss Iraq. Then Obama and Mr. Biden had a private lunch. In the afternoon, Obama met with Attorney General Eric Holder to receive an update on the situation in Ferguson, Mo. No word yet on what Tuesday holds. The president is scheduled to make a statement from the briefing room at 4 p.m. Eastern time.

Speculation has been intense over what else might be going on – an announcement on immigration policy, perhaps? That’s not supposed to come until the end of summer. Maybe some personnel changes? Certainly that could wait until Obama’s two-week vacation is over.

In part, the diversion from vacation may be intended to show that the president is active and engaged amid various world crises, from Iraq to Ukraine to Ferguson. But, it must be noted, the two-day hiatus was on the books before Obama decided to launch airstrikes in Iraq and before rioting in Ferguson erupted over a policeman’s killing of an unarmed black teenager.

“[I] don’t recall a president interrupting vacation just for some WH meetings – but there have been prior interruptions,” writes Mark Knoller, a CBS Radio White House reporter and collector of presidential data, in an e-mail.

Most of them involve President George W. Bush, who spent a lot of time at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, almost treating it at times as a second White House. Mr. Knoller cites these examples:

  • President Bush left his ranch for the White House on March 20, 2005, to sign legislation aimed at keeping alive Terry Schiavo, the young woman with severe brain damage who became a national cause célèbre. Then, he returned to Crawford.
  • Bush would also interrupt ranch visits for scheduled events in other locations – sometimes a day trip, sometimes more, then return to the ranch.
  • In August 2007, Bush interrupted a ranch stay to attend a Summit of the Americas in Canada. He then returned to Crawford by way of Minnesota and Kansas for other events.

For any president, getting away from Washington is complicated. It involves a lot of advance planning by the Secret Service and other support staff, and must be in a location that can accommodate staff – including protective services – and the media.

“So for the president to take a break like this one, it’s serious,” says Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution and a veteran of two White Houses.

Then, there’s the break in mental relaxation. Imagine, even for us average folks, departing the beach house one has rented for two weeks, leaving the family behind, and going back to the office for a couple of days. Ugh.

“I’ve always felt, at least the two times I was on a president’s staff, that a vacation is sacrosanct,” says Mr. Hess, who worked in the Eisenhower and Nixon White Houses.  

“It’s very important to the president.  It is very important to all of his staff, particularly those who don’t go with him. It’s either  a great time for them to go on vacation, or to clean up all the work they haven’t had time to do when he was looking over their shoulders.”

Obama’s brief return to the White House also puts the lie to the notion that presidents can do everything they need to do from their vacation homes. Indeed, he has staff with him on the Vineyard, and those who aren’t there are available on speed dial.

Nevertheless, the work of a vacationing president is “done with a skeleton staff, and the hour or two he puts aside for office business is only part of it,” says Hess. “It’s penciled in as vacation, not as serious work from someplace other than the White House.”

Someday, the public will know the full story of Obama’s “vacation from vacation.” But until then, the mystery lingers. 

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