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August 10, 2013

Obama Begins Vacation Amid Surveillance Debate

by Kent Klein

U.S. President Barack Obama and his family left Saturday for an eight-day vacation on the upscale resort island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
 
The president took off from Orlando, Florida, where he promised an audience of military veterans faster action on disability claims.
 
Taking with him the burdens of the presidency and some inevitable criticism, his departure is a marked turn of events from a Friday news conference that saw him addressing terrorism threats and U.S. surveillance concerns.
 
Even when the president is on vacation, says White House press secretary Jay Carney, he’s not really on vacation.
 
"The president very much looks forward to being able to spend a few days with his family, and it also remains the case that wherever he is, he is president of the United States, and will be dedicating a portion of his day to being briefed and working on all the issues that are on the table in front of him," Carney said.
 
Even so, many opposition Republicans are criticizing the president for going to Martha’s Vineyard. Kenneth Walsh, the author of a history of presidential retreats entitled titled From Mount Vernon to Crawford, says such criticism is nothing new.
 
"Whenever a president goes on vacation, the opposition always piles on and attacks the president for goofing off or for wasting taxpayers’ money," he said.
 
Walsh says the opulence of Martha’s Vineyard could present an image problem for the president, while many Americans are still struggling to recover from the recession.
 
"A very upscale place that most Americans could not afford really to go to, especially in the circumstances he will be in, in a $7 million estate he will be renting," he said. "I think that is the problem — the appearance of perhaps being insensitive."
 
A portion of the criticism stems from the cost of a presidential trip, which is not made available to the public. Some government estimates have put the cost of flying Air Force One, the presidential aircraft, at about $180,000 an hour.
 
Some critics say that at a time of uncertainty over the economy and federal budget, as well as U.S. embassies and consulates on alert for terror attacks, the president should stay in Washington.
 
Thomas Alan Schwartz, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, says presidents spend much of their vacations being briefed on security and the economy, and dealing with other issues.
 
“President Obama never gets a vacation, ultimately," he said. "Any type of emergency issue, any type of question immediately comes to the president through his various assistants and others. I mean, he basically takes the White House with him when he goes on vacation."
 
Obama has found it hard to escape the job while on vacation. He cut short a trip with his family to Hawaii last December to return to Washington, where he concluded a deal with Republicans to continue funding the government.
 
During the Obamas’ December 2009 trip to Hawaii, the so-called “underwear bomber” tried to blow up a commercial airliner. The president left Martha’s Vineyard in August 2009 to attend the funeral of Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy.
 
Even if Obama is not forced to abbreviate this vacation, Walsh says he will have several tough issues waiting for him when he gets home.
 
“Everybody in Washington is looking toward the fall as a time of real collision in Washington over the debt ceiling, over budget priorities," he said. "There are probably some decisions that have to be made on immigration. But largely the economic issues, and that is going to be front and center when President Obama comes back."
 
Walsh and Schwartz, however, agree that all U.S. presidents need to take some time to relax. They say President Obama has spent far fewer days on vacation than many of his recent predecessors.
 
A recent poll by Fox News shows Americans are evenly divided over whether Obama deserves to take time off. The poll also shows that an overwhelming majority do not believe members of Congress, who are currently on a five-week summer recess, deserve a vacation.
 
Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.