WASHINGTON — Is there ever really a good time for the president to go on vacation? President Barack Obama's summer getaway to Martha's Vineyard has reignited a seemingly annual debate.
Given the demands of the job and the always-looming possibility of an unexpected crisis at home or abroad, the political perils of a presidential vacation never seem to go away. This summer, the vacation dilemma is compounded by the country's urgent demand for jobs, the debt crisis that's left Washington with a hangover and the public's frustration with political gridlock.
The president has promised that new jobs initiatives are coming. But the people won't hear the details or any other solutions to the nation's economic woes until he returns from his summer sojourn to Martha's Vineyard, the wealthy island enclave off the Massachusetts coast where he and his family will vacation for the third straight year.
Obama is due to leave Washington Thursday for the 10-day trip.
The president isn't the only one taking a break this summer. Most lawmakers left town in early August, right after reaching a deal with the White House to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a potentially catastrophic government default. Congress isn't expected back in session until early September.
With lawmakers away, there's probably not much Obama could get done on the economic front even if he did cancel the trip. And even if Congress stayed in Washington, too, there are no quick fixes for the country's deep economic problems.
"They don't have anything to act upon," Rich Galen, a Republican consultant, said of both Obama and Congress. "If anyone knew what the answer to this was, they'd do it."
Then there's the issue of perception. Obama will be vacationing at a rented, multimillion-dollar estate on an island known as a haven for the rich and famous at a time when millions of people are out of work and countless more are financially strapped.
Bill Clinton's aides were so concerned about vacation perceptions that they polled the public before deciding where he should go. While Clinton preferred trips to Martha's Vineyard, polling pushed him to the more rugged Jackson Hole, Wyo.
George W. Bush was criticized for spending nearly 500 days at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, during his two terms in office. He was there in August 2001 when he received a CIA briefing paper warning of al-Qaida's intentions to strike the United States – about a month before the Sept. 11 attacks would occur. In 2005, he remained on vacation after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans and devastated the Gulf Coast. His presidency suffered from his response to the storm and his decision to not immediately return to Washington.
Some of Obama's prior vacations have come under fire as well. Last summer, he was chided for not taking his family on a Gulf Coast vacation following the BP oil spill. When he finally did travel to the Florida Panhandle for a weekend, his attempts to soothe public concern about the safety of the region's beaches were tainted when the White House released a photo of the president and daughter Sasha swimming in water that turned out not to be the Gulf.
Perhaps mindful of the president's image, the White House booked Obama on a three-day, economy-focused bus tour through the Midwest right before the vacation. He also traveled to Michigan last week to speak at a factory that makes batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Wednesday that Obama should stay in Washington and call Congress back to work.
"If you're the president of the United States, and the nation is in crisis – and we're in a jobs crisis right now – then you shouldn't be out vacationing," the former Massachusetts governor said on a Chicago radio program. "Instead you should be focusing on getting the economy going again. And, yeah, go back to the office yourself, pull back members of Congress and focus on getting the job done."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said he doesn't think the public begrudges the president a break to recharge and spend time with his family. Besides, Carney noted that the president is never really off-duty since White House advisers go with him and he still receives regular briefings on national security, the economy and other matters.
"The presidency travels with you," said Carney. He also noted that Martha's Vineyard is close enough to Washington that Obama could get back quickly if needed.
Two of Obama's counterparts had to cut short their summer vacations due to events at home. British Prime Minister David Cameron returned early from Italy to preside over the response to riots spreading across England. French President Nicolas Sarkozy ended his Mediterranean vacation early amid fears that his country's credit rating could be downgraded.
Short of an unexpected crisis, Obama seemed determined to follow through with his Martha's Vineyard plans. He has adamantly rejected the notion of calling Congress back from its break.
"The last thing we need is Congress spending more time arguing in D.C.," he said in a speech last week. "What I figure is, they need to spend more time out here listening to you and hearing how fed up you are."
Political analyst Thomas Mann said that would be all well and good, if that were really how politicians spent their time in their districts.
"Most members of Congress go home and see people who think just like they do," said Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It would be wonderful if people in Congress actually had to confront citizens who disagreed with them."
Julie Pace can be reached at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC