Vacation Over

12.27.12

Why Obama Fled His Hawaii Vacation in Shadow of the Fiscal Cliff

Obama cut short his trip to return to Washington, even though he’s unlikely to get a fiscal-cliff deal from the GOP. Lauren Ashburn on the dangers of presidential vacations.

President Obama packed up and left behind gorgeous sunrises over pristine Hawaii beaches, rolling green golf courses peppered with palm trees, and the bosom of his family, to return—alone—to sleet-covered walks and browning Christmas trees.

It would be one thing if he was cutting his vacation short for actual work, but we know better.

He headed back in town for one reason only: to join in the political posturing.

Never mind that the man can work anywhere, anytime, thanks to all of the gizmos on Air Force One, a sizable entourage, and secure telephone lines. Nope, he has to be seen landing his chopper on the South Lawn, propping his leather loafers on his mahogany desk in the Oval.

As they say in La-La Land, it’s all about optics, baby.

When it comes to the battle of perception, score one for Obama.

The president has learned from problems his predecessors encountered when trying to get some much-needed R&R. Ronald Reagan often was lambasted for spending so much time cutting brush at his ranch in California. He made 43 visits to the ranch as president, totaling just about a year in his home state. 

By some accounts, George W. Bush spent well over a year in total at his 1,500-acre Texas ranch—the Western White House as many called it.

In 2002, he caused a media firestorm in a quip made famous by Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. After denouncing “terrorist killers” to a group of reporters, he uncorked a mighty golf swing, saying, “Now watch this drive.”

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, W took a previously scheduled trip to California and Arizona, returning to his ranch the next day and finally to the White House the following day.

In some cases, presidents get it right. Reagan cut short a ranch trip after the Soviets shot down a Korean Airlines flight. In 1993, Bill Clinton left Hawaii to tour flood damage in the Midwest; in 1998 he interrupted a Martha’s Vineyard trip—where he had gone to get a break from the Monica Lewinsky uproar—to order missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan.

However, the lure of the island—and his oft-criticized elbow rubbing with blue bloods—pulled him north again the next day.

So what does Obama stand to gain by abandoning Hawaii early and returning to the capital on Thursday?

It seems John Boehner has thrown up his hands on this one. He tried to cut a major deal with Obama to avert the fiscal cliff, but couldn’t bridge the gap as the endless talks dragged on. Then the House speaker couldn’t get his troops to line up behind him on an ill-conceived backup plan dubbed Plan B (who came up with that name anyway?) to extend tax cuts for most Americans while allowing rates to rise to 1990s levels on income over $1 million. Unable to get the votes, Boehner sent everyone home for Christmas.

Obama knows that he can’t be lounging on the beach when everyone’s taxes go up.

For a president backed by public opinion on boosting taxes for the wealthy, sliding off the cliff next week could strengthen his political hand. He can blame GOP intransigence for the negative consequences: deep spending cuts, including in defense, while income tax rates go up, capital gains taxes go up, estate taxes go up. In January, Obama will again propose cutting taxes for 98 percent of Americans, and the pressure on Republicans to capitulate will be enormous. The longer the impasse goes on, the more pain the country will feel. Somebody’s got to say uncle. 

But Obama knows—even if falling over the fiscal cliff is politically advantageous to his party—that he can’t be lounging on the beach when everyone’s taxes shoot up. He’ll just have to watch the ball drop with Michelle on Skype.

Ringing in the new year alone would sure beat getting hammered in the polls.

And just where are the Republicans? Eating turkey and pie in their home districts, no doubt, snug by the fire as visions of spending cuts dance in their heads. John Boehner has them on a 48-hour call-back leash, but there’s not a lot of proof lately that he could convince them to do anything.

When it comes to the battle of perception, score one for Obama.