There may be no good week for the president of the United States to take a nice, restful break. But there are definitely bad ones.
The past week was one of them.
President Barack Obama’s planned two-week respite on Martha’s Vineyard – with a brief return to Washington for a couple of days – has been overwhelmed with crises and headaches guaranteed to unsettle even the most determined vacationer. Overseas, there were airstrikes and a humanitarian effort in Iraq; Russia and Ukraine again edged toward conflict. Closer to home, there were violent clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson, Mo., after the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by police.
And here on Martha’s Vineyard, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton showed up – along with her headline-grabbing criticism of the president’s approach to foreign policy.
Presidents away from the White House are still very much on the job, as White House aides are always quick to point out. But most of that work takes place behind the scenes.
In the past week, the public was greeted with images of a Midwest town in turmoil – and of Obama playing golf and riding a bike. The president made a statement on Iraq – and arrived at a golf course just four minutes later, one of six golf outings in a week. On Wednesday, as news of more unrest in Ferguson filtered in, Obama was at a friend’s birthday party; the White House said he danced “to nearly every song” and dined on surf and turf.
The contrast provided fresh grist for critics who questioned Obama’s ability to project an image of strong leadership in crisis situations – and marked the latest episode in his long history of star-crossed presidential vacations.
In 2011, Obama was blasted for vacationing here as 14 million people were out of work. He ended up cutting the vacation short because of a hurricane.
For three years in a row, Obama’s Christmas vacation to Hawaii has been delayed because of fiscal face-offs on Capitol Hill. In 2012, he skipped a summer vacation because of the presidential campaign. Earlier this year, Obama was chided for proceeding with a previously planned weekend in Florida, even as conflicts in Ukraine escalated.
The White House has pushed back on critiques of the president’s whereabouts during a time of crisis. “I think it’s fair to say there are, of course, ongoing complicated situations in the world, and that’s why you’ve seen the president stay engaged,” principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters.
And if the president didn’t appear engaged, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Obama addressed the news media twice from Martha’s Vineyard. His aides put out a stream of readouts summarizing calls he had with world leaders, including one with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and released photos of Obama being briefed by senior officials and speaking to leaders on the phone.
But much of the mechanics that make the White House function on the road remain mostly invisible to the public.
“He has all the tools at his disposal no matter where he is, the same functional capabilities he has at his Oval Office desk,” said Steve Atkiss, the deputy director of advance for former president George W. Bush. When the president goes anywhere, be it a day trip or a vacation, “the infrastructure follows him.”
That means Obama travels with a massive staff entourage. On this trip, he is accompanied by Deputy Chief of Staff Anita Decker Breckenridge, national security adviser Susan Rice, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and others.
A White House official said Obama has received the daily intelligence briefing in the mornings, and is briefed throughout the day by advisers – sometimes in person, other times on paper, and in other cases over the phone while here on Martha’s Vineyard.
Obama was briefed very late Wednesday night about the situation in Ferguson by Attorney General Eric Holder and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. Concerned about the violence, the president made the decision that night to speak publicly about the issue Thursday, a senior White House official said.
The White House has not revealed exactly how Obama’s personal schedule has played out in the past week. It is, however, par for the course for a president or vice president to have his R and R cut short.
So if his vacation hasn’t shaped up precisely as planned, Obama can at least look forward to a brief break from his break: He was set to return to Washington on Sunday night for two days of White House meetings – then fly back to Martha’s Vineyard on Tuesday night to give relaxing one last shot.