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08.11.11

Does Obama Deserve a Vacation?

A majority of political gurus are telling the president to skip Martha’s Vineyard this month. As Lloyd Grove reports, holidays are no longer about rest – they’re about image.

Few doubt that President Obama has been working himself to the bone during the nation’s fiscal and economic crisis. The deaths of 30 American soldiers in a Taliban-downed helicopter in Afghanistan last Saturday also hit him very hard.

Obama looks haggard, his hair’s going gray and, as revealed recently by top White House aide Valerie Jarrett, the 50-year-old leader of the free world has been losing sleep.

So surely he deserves a little R&R with his family in Martha’s Vineyard, right?

Not necessarily, according to a growing Greek chorus of political kibitzers.

“Don’t go,” veteran Republican media strategist Mike Murphy emailed Thursday when I asked about Obama’s plan to vacation on the elite Massachusetts resort island from August 18 through August 27. “It’s not a good time to start acting like the rich guys he wants to raise taxes on.”

Former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough—normally an enthusiastic endorser of presidential downtime—also raised a red flag, but for different reasons. “I’m a strong believer in the president getting away from the White House and doing whatever he can for his mental state to run the country,” the host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe told me. “That’s not only good for the president, it’s good for America. But In this case, I just believe that politically, the image of the president vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, while world markets are teetering on the brink of collapse, would send a horrific message—-not only to the market but to Middle America.”

Scarborough said the current controversy reminds him of Memorial Day Weekend 2010, when Obama insisted on relaxing in Chicago when many of his advisers were urging  him to  fly to the Gulf to show solidarity with victims of the BP oil spill. “He refused to do it, and got hammered for it politically,” Scarborough recalled. “We were told that ‘the president doesn’t do theater.’ I’m sorry, the president needs to do theater, baby.”

Scarborough suggested that instead of heading for the Vineyard, Obama could minimize political damage by playing board games with his daughters in the White House residence, golfing to his heart’s content at Washington-area courses, or even chilling out at Camp David.

Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, offered a pro-vacation argument. “My brother does work very hard. His burden is great. Times are tough,” she emailed me. “He has two beautiful girls who need him to take the time to be with family and to recharge for the enormous challenges ahead.”

But another vacation critic is Dick Morris, the political consultant-turned-Fox News pundit and author who used to be Bill Clinton’s chief White House strategist. “I think it’s ridiculous,” Morris told me about Obama’s planned 10-day respite. “I think when you look at the birthday bash with all the hip-hop stars and the Vineyard vacation against the backdrop of the helicopter disaster, the downgrading of our credit rating and the market crash, it’s really just awful.”

We were told that ‘the president doesn’t do theater.’ I’m sorry, the president needs to do theater, baby.

In August 1996, Morris famously vetoed a Clinton family vacation on the Vineyard, their favorite summer resort, after private reelection campaign polling indicated widespread popular resentment of presidential R&R at such a posh location. Instead, Bill, Hillary and Chelsea were made to suffer through the searing heat of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the president was dutifully photographed on horseback, wearing a denim shirt and a cowboy hat.

“The polling showed that people really resented the Vineyard vacation and valued a mountain vacation,” Morris recalled. “He had to show himself as a family person and also middle-class, and give a positive image amid some of the ongoing scandals. In Obama’s case, he’s seen as a warm family person, but it’s a question of money and distraction. I think the criticism from the right-wing is so virulent that it obscures the growing criticism from liberals over issues of competence, strength and passivity, and not having a feel for the economy.”

Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, an Obama admirer, said that, Martha’s Vineyard or not, there’s little the president can do to avoid a political cost of some sort. “Whether he’s there or not, he’ll get grief for it,” Shrum predicted, noting that August has long been a problematic month politically for Obama—-whether it was 2007 and he was trailing far behind Hillary Clinton, 2008, when Sarah Palin was helping John McCain in the polls, or 2009, when the Tea Party exploded on the scene.

“Symbolic communication is very important,” Shrum added, echoing Scarborough. “The president is our chief symbolist in difficult moments, and this is the difficult month for him and it always has been, ironically.”

Shrum said Obama should consider taking the urgent advice of some to summon Congress back to Washington for an emergency August session to haggle over the economy and deficit reduction. “He shouldn’t be ceding the month, but the question they would have to answer is whether or not they have substantive things they could do. They could call back Congress and present a program, and even if it didn’t pass, it would make clear to the American people that he was trying to fight for jobs.  The Congress and the president shouldn’t be on vacation while tens of millions of Americans are on forced vacations in the form of unemployment.”

A rare voice in unalloyed support of a Martha’s Vineyard holiday is presidential scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institute.

“There’s nothing he can’t do in Martha’s Vineyard that he could do in Washington,” said Hess, who worked in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations, noting that the president travels with a full complement of White House advisers, instant communications, and quick and convenient transportation. “If he needed to get back to Washington, he could turn around on a dime. If you call Congress back, you’re setting up a whole series of events that may lead to more gridlock and probably would cause more irritation.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney made a similar argument Wednesday when grilled by ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper about Obama’s Vineyard vacation plans.

“I don’t think Americans out there would begrudge that notion that the president would spend some time with his family,” Carney insisted, adding, “there’s no such thing as a presidential vacation.  The presidency travels with you…And he will, of course, be fully capable, if necessary, of traveling back if that were required. It’s not very far.”