07.17.10

Give Him His Well-Deserved Break

Obama's three-day Maine vacation has provoked outrage, just like Bush's Crawford trips did. But Reihan Salam says such getaways don't just rejuvenate the president—they remind us he's human.

In The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Ursula LeGuin, the celebrated science fiction novelist, describes a flourishing city that draws its improbable happiness from the isolation and torment of a young child. One gets the impression that we've reached a similar conclusion about our presidents: as long as there is distress in the land, Barack Obama, his wife, and his two children must remain in the White House, suffering in the sweltering heat and looking dour, never betraying signs of relaxation or a simple love of life. To play golf while crude oil seeps into the delicate ecosystems of the Gulf is, we're told, a scandalous affront to decency, as though a president chained to his desk has magical oil-retarding properties.

Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of the Obamas' Vacations

As president, George W. Bush spent long stretches of time away from the White House, often in Crawford, Texas clearing brush. And President Bush had more than his fair share of detractors, mocking and deriding him for not focusing on his job. The Bush years were, lest we forget, hardly less fraught with anxiety and dread than the Obama years, albeit of a different kind. The unemployment rate hadn't reached today's chilling heights, but a climate of national security emergency meant that the Bush vacations could be spun as something akin to a dereliction of duty. And spun they were. One could see the new RNC website mocking President Obama for his vacations as entirely appropriate payback for the endless gags about President Bush's vacations.

Yet it must be said that the presidency is an unusually taxing job, as illustrated by the extraordinary speed with which presidential hair goes gray. Apart from the fact that the president serves as chief executive of the sprawling, dizzyingly complex, antique, and brittle organization that is the U.S. federal government, he is also the object of our collective hopes and hatreds. Though Barack Obama, like any politician at his level, is no stranger to attention-seeking and status-seeking, it is hard to discount the glaring intensity of having hundreds of millions of eyes focused on you at all times.


The White House defends President Obama golfing on Father's Day weekend

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This isn't to say that the jobs the rest of us have aren't difficult and demanding in their own ways. But websites like this one spike in traffic during working hours, when employees are putatively contributing to the bottom line. Rather than focus like a laser beam on filing TPS reports or designing new skateboards or monitoring the stability of nuclear reactors, many of us take mini-vacations during which we eat Chips Ahoy! and laugh heartily at the latest LOLcats, all while sitting at our desks. Suffice it to say, this isn't an option for President Obama, who is obligated to focus his scarce attentional resources on decisions that would leave most of us sputtering or catatonic. There are compensating advantages, like access to an extraordinary fleet of armor-plated vehicles. But who doubts that a man of Barack Obama's considerable intellect and charm couldn't have secured a plane and a bevy of armed bodyguards through some other, less-demanding professional path?

Like a large and growing number of Americans, I am allergic to vacations, but I do enjoy a change of scenery. The "working vacation," during which one remains tethered to email, etc., while away from the office, is now commonplace. It's clear that the president is never far from the soul-crushing burden that one suspects is taking years off of his life.

Just as we don't want codeine-sipping insomniacs operating heavy machinery, we have very good reason to want President Obama to take a restorative weekend off.


The Conservative News Network's ominous look at Obama's vacation

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And at the risk of stating the obvious, one could characterize the morbid fixation of President Obama's work-life balance as a symptom of what the libertarian scholar Gene Healy calls "the cult of the presidency" in his book of the same name. The remorseless expansion of executive power has profoundly undermined the balance of powers. The role of president was envisioned as something akin to a nonpartisan chief magistrate, a constitutional umpire who would faithfully execute laws passed by Congress. From early on, however, the presidency has had an air of quasi-mystical authority, making the men who've held the job a strange combination of superhero, hard-charging CEO, and national dad.

One wonders if we'd be better off with an unpretentious monarchy, modeled on the unpretentious bicycle-riding royal families of Scandinavia. A figurehead monarch could absorb at least some national attention, leaving the head of government space enough to do his job well while working civilized hours. Indeed, most affluent democracies are parliamentary republics, in which the president has a small handful of constitutional duties that are never too taxing. The job is often a sinecure offered to widely admired figures. The prime minister does the heavy lifting, yet without the quasi-mystical baggage. Or at least that's how the theory goes.


From Fahrenheit 9/11, George W. Bush defending time on vacation

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The extraordinarily high unemployment rate, and the alarming number of U.S. workers leaving the workforce every month, is an unambiguous human tragedy that is scarring the lives of millions, including millions of children. To be sure, it is better to be unemployed in the affluent United States than in most of the world. That doesn't change the grievous psychic injuries involved. Of course people are looking for someone to blame, and President Obama, and his predecessors, seem like very good candidates. There is, I'll admit, something vaguely Marie Antoinette-ish about repairing to your ranch or to Bar Harbor—something ostentatiously civilized, as though one intends to underline the fact that presidents lead very different lives from members of the anxious American middle class. But just as we don't want codeine-sipping insomniacs operating heavy machinery, we have very good reason to want President Obama to take a restorative weekend off. It is a reminder that he is something other than a machine, and something other than a vessel for our political controversies. He is a human being and a husband and a father.

Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at e21 and a fellow at the New America Foundation.