Should President Obama Cancel His Vacation?
President Obama and his family left late last week for a 10-day vacation in Martha’s Vineyard.
Since then, Mr. Obama’s critics have blasted him for vacationing during an economic meltdown. And his poll numbers – down to 39 percent in a recent Gallup poll – suggest that he can’t afford the bad optics of having fun in the sun while a large percentage of his constituents continue to struggle to find work.
So here’s the question: Should President Obama cut his vacation short as his critics suggest, or is he entitled to some rare precious time with his wife and young daughters while Congress is out-of-session?
THE ARGUMENT: YES, HE SHOULD GO ON VACATION
1. Historically Speaking, He Hasn’t Vacationed That Much: President Obama has vacationed significantly less than President Bush did up to this point in his presidency. According to CBS News reporter Mark Knoller, Mr. Bush had vacationed for 225 days up to this point in his tenure, while Mr. Obama has been away just 70 days.
2. Style Over Substance: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney rightly pointed out that presidents are never really on vacation. Even when clearing brush in Crawford, President Bush received daily briefings and was available to conduct presidential business. Same is true for President Obama. Canceling his vacation might look good, but it would accomplish substantively little.
3. Vacations Allow For Healthier Decisions: Vacations aren’t only an excuse to blow off work. They’re also psychologically proven to help people make better decisions. According to the Baltimore Sun:
“Being on a vacation that relieves stress allows people to regain their ability to do well on tasks that require them to focus their attention. A 2009 PNAS study in rats provides clues for the mechanism behind this: Researchers found that stress causes parts of brain cells in the medial prefrontal cortex to shrink, impairing their ability to do well on an attention task. But after four weeks of stress-free living, the rats’ cells returned to normal.”
4. Even Presidents Need Family Time: The President and First Lady have two young daughters. The Obama family deserves time together, and those two beautiful children deserve an opportunity to enjoy some rare time with Mom and Dad.
THE ARGUMENT: NO, HE SHOULDN’T GO ON VACATION
1. Going on Vacation Is Politically Tone-Deaf: Going on an extended vacation in a playground for the wealthy is politically tone-deaf. The real unemployment rate is now at about 16 percent; one in six American workers is out of work. The American people rightly want the sense that their President is doing everything possible to get them back to work, and his vacation is undercutting his pledge “not to rest” until people get back to work
2. The Vacation Will Provide Bad Optics: For ten days, Americans will see stories on the evening news about plummeting stock markets and faltering foreign economies juxtaposed with stories showing the President eating ice cream on the beach in shorts. It looks bad, almost as out-of-synch as former BP CEO Tony Hayward attending a yacht race while tar balls rushed onto Florida’s shorelines.
3. The Vacation Undercuts His Main Loyalty: The President’s main loyalty during his time in office is to his country, not his family. When he decided to run for office, he knew it would come at a tremendous personal cost. Not being able to vacation for 10 days with his family during a crisis is a sacrifice presidents just have to make.
I agree with every argument that the President is justified to go on vacation.
But in the end, I side with his critics. I don’t side with them for the same reasons – I believe many of his critics are motivated more by politics than sincere belief – but despite that, I find myself reaching the same conclusion.
President Obama could have chosen a different vacation. For example, he could have gone to Camp David with his family for a week, away from the reporters and photo ops that will follow his every move in Martha’s Vineyard. Or he could have visited a city with a struggling economy for a few days – an abandoned steel town, a decayed urban city like Detroit, or Nevada, the state with the nation’s highest unemployment rate. His visit would have provided a short-term economic boost, and could have sent a surge of tourism to places that badly need it.
Canceling his longer vacation would, indeed, be style over substance. But style is a key component of effective leadership, and facts aren’t always enough to compensate for perception. For a President already widely regarded as distant and aloof, this vacation reinforces an existing narrative.
My criticism isn’t based in partisanship. I started this blog after President Bush’s tenure had ended, but my criticism would have extended to him as well, for the same reasons. Clearing brush on a Crawford farm looked bad as American troops died almost daily in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today’s presidency, magnified in the fishbowl of a 24/7 media culture, requires leaders to be ever-mindful of optics. The optics look bad here, and President Obama will likely pay a political price.
What do you think? Should the President go on vacation regardless of polls, or is the timing distasteful? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.