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Returning from Hawaii. (Photo/WWR)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Vacation? What Vacation?

When President Obama boards Marine One this afternoon for a ten-day vacation with his family on Martha’s Vineyard, a military officer will board as well. He’ll be carrying two thick briefcases and, like everyone but the First Family, will slip on board via the steps towards the rear of the aircraft. Because all eyes are on the President, few will even notice the officer or the bulky bags he’s lugging in each hand.

Those bags are known as “the football” – and inside are the top-secret nuclear codes the President needs to launch a nuclear attack. For decades, an officer has gone everywhere with the Commander-in-Chief and is always available instantly, should it come to Armageddon.

Martha’s Vineyard for Obama, Crawford for George W. Bush, Rancho del Cielo for Reagan, Hyannisport for JFK. The football goes along – a symbol that no matter where the President is, the crushing burden of the job is always – and – literally – present.

“Presidents don’t get vacations,” Nancy Reagan once said. “They just get a change of scenery. The job goes with you.”

The criticism goes with them too. With two wars, unemployment stubbornly hovering near 10%, Iran, the oil spill and all the rest, many of President Obama’s detractors have made fodder of his frequent golf outings – nearly every weekend – and mini-getaways to places like Maine, Florida and Chicago, where he spent a bachelor weekend with his buddies.

But some Obama opponents like Ari Fleischer, once George W. Bush’s spokesman, say give the man a break.

“Presidencies wear people out,’’ Fleischer told the Boston Globe. “And they just simply deserve a break, especially a president with a couple little kids.’’

And even on Martha's Vineyard, Obama will still be working, says deputy White House spokesman Bill Burton.

“Whenever you talk about a presidential vacation you ought to put the word “vacation” in quotes because you can bet that there will still be work that he’s doing every day,” Burton says. “He'll continue to get his daily intelligence brief from (counterterrorism advisor) John Brennan, who will be there. He'll be getting constant updates on what’s happening in the economy and other issues.”

But what about all the golf Obama plays? The President has come under criticism for spending what some feel is too much time on the links – practically every weekend.

“This question has come up since the Eisenhower era,” points out pollster Charles Franklin of, who says any criticism is usually linked to how Americans think the nation is doing.

“For the most part, people, on balance, say ‘the president isn’t spending too much time on vacation,’” Franklin says. “But if a president becomes a little less popular, as the current president is, voters become a little more critical of their vacation or golf outings.”

Take Eisenhower, for instance, who played golf every chance he got.

“Early in his term, in 1953, 17% of Americans said he was playing too much. But by the late part of his presidency, 1958, that number more than doubled, to 36%. Interestingly, his popularity had fallen during the same time from 74% to 52%. So the issue here is people criticize the golf when they also don’t feel good about the president.”

And given the pressures of the job, the unimaginable stress that goes with it, it is necessary for any president to clear his head. Herbert Hoover fished. Ronald Reagan cleared brush. Barack Obama plays golf.

“The idea that a president is somehow permanently chained to the desk in the Oval Office 24/7 really is a wrong notion of how human beings cope with that kind of pressure,” Franklin says.

It’s not necessary for the president to be chained to that desk anyway, Franklin points out.

“The president doesn’t run the government; he delegates the running of it to others. Where we really need the president is on momentous decisions whether it’s foreign policy or legislative approaches or regulation. Only on the big calls does the president really have to make those decisions, and that’s really not every moment of every day.”

- Paul Brandus at the White House

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