07.29.09

Obama's $30,000 Getaway

New details about the president's upcoming Martha’s Vineyard vacation guarantee that Republicans will again attack him as a free-spending elitist. Do they have a point?

New details about the president's upcoming Martha’s Vineyard vacation guarantee that Republicans will again attack him as a free-spending elitist. Do they have a point? Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

Get ready for the next Mustard-Gate. It’s the Obama-is-elitist attack that gets reflexively rolled out by predictable partisans whenever the president does anything short of drinking Bud at a VFW hall—like getting Dijon mustard on a burger.

The next target will be the president’s choice of a summer vacation home—just revealed to be a 28-acre, $20 million property known as Blue Heron Farm in the town of Chilmark (got to love that name) on Martha’s Vineyard, dubbed “America’s most expensive small town” in 2007.

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This summer installment of Mustard-Gate will be accompanied by plenty of parallels with Bill Clinton’s summers among the Carly Simons of the world on the Massachusetts coast. Real Americans, it will be said, spend their summers cutting brush on their ranch—forgetting the fact that most Americans (the Obamas included) don’t own a ranch. The hefty estimated price tag—north of $30K for the week—will also provoke talking points, just as it did when President-elect Obama rented an expensive post-election property in his native Hawaii. So here are some things to keep in mind while you’re being force-fed coverage of this latest manufactured controversy.

First, the president deserves props for paying for his vacation out of his own pocket—others in his shoes have often leaned on friendly donors and fat cats.

Second, remember that even the leader of the free world does not have free rein when it comes to determining his accommodations. If Obama wanted to stay at the Holiday Inn during his next visit to New York, he couldn’t. Only the Waldorf has the security procedures in place to protect the president. The Secret Service vets and vetoes any potential hotels or home rentals, even on a summer vacation.

Third, Martha’s Vineyard makes sense for the Obama family, when viewed with a sense of heritage and history. As Stephen Carter wrote in The Daily Beast, Martha’s Vineyard is home to the town of Oak Bluffs, one of the few historically middle-class African-American summer retreats in the country.

Finally, past presidents have taken similar hits—not just Bill Clinton, but also conservatives’ patron-saint Ronald Reagan.

In the summer of 1982, as America struggled through a deep recession and the emerging collapse of the manufacturing sector, Reagan took a much criticized Caribbean vacation at the estate of actress Claudette Colbert. You can imagine the attacks today—"the president’s palling around with out-of touch Hollywood elite" or "wasn’t any location in the USA good enough for the Gipper?"

Here’s what The Washington Post wrote at the time: “The president splashes about in the lap of luxury while Americans go hungry.”

It’s a miracle of modern spin that the grandson of a senator and son of a president escaped the “elitist” tag while the inter-racial son of a teenage single mom in the ’60s gets tarred with it.

Yes, any presidential vacation in a summer of "stay-cations” for many middle-class families would be open to criticism. And the digs’ monthly price tag is more than millions of Americans earn in a year—but that’s the market rate, which the president is rightly compelled to pay. And he doesn’t have a family estate in Kennebunkport to retire to for speed golf and boat racing.

This whole "elitist" attack on Obama is bogus and has been from the beginning. Its roots can be found in a Karl Rove column from last summer, describing Obama like this: “He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone." (You’ve got to love Rove’s pivot from Obama as radical-Afro-centric-Chicago-community-organizer in favor of trying to turn Obama into James Spader circa Pretty in Pink).

This morphed into the McCain campaign’s "Celebrity" ad. And we’ve seen fumes of the "elitist" attack translate into resentment of the post-civil-rights-era success of Obama and Sonia Sotomayor under the anti-affirmative-action umbrella, rather than viewing it as a sign of the evolutionary success of the American experiment. But then some of these folks don’t believe in evolution, anyway.

The bottom line is that the ultimate sign of elitism is aristocracy, not meritocracy. And it’s a miracle of modern spin and single-minded partisanship that the grandson of a senator and son of a president escaped the ‘elitist’ tag while the inter-racial son of a teenage single mom in the '60s gets tarred with it. But that’s the power of hyper-partisanship—where you stand is a matter of where you sit—objectivity gets suspended and fairness ain’t anywhere in the room.

The overall partisan game plan, now in full force, is to damage perceptions of President Obama through a death of a thousand cuts.The "limousine liberal" attack has been part of the fault lines of partisan politics since at least the late 1960s. It fit John Kerry, but it’s a real stretch for Barack Obama. The RNC’s reflexive reach for that playbook shows a degree of intellectual exhaustion, especially when they have substantive points of disagreement like an unprecedented multi-trillion-dollar deficit. The irony is that when these hyper-partisans retreat to pumping up the latest round of Mustard-Gate, they are the ones who are condescending to the American people.

John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast. He served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.