Presidential vacation time is always fodder for criticism no matter the economic environment but when the country is beset by a slow recovery it becomes much easier to rail against the current executive for enjoying some leisure time. This was evident in a testy interview moment between the President and KMOV St. Louis reporter Larry Conners when Obama was pressed on the first family’s “jetting around” on vacation at taxpayers’ expense.
The interview generated some buzz yesterday after the video’s release and appearance on Yahoo News. While the line of questioning was appropriate, the not so subtle accusations illustrated how Mr. Conners failed to put the current first family’s vacation time into contextual perspective by comparing it to the time other presidents have spent away from the White House.
A direct comparison places Obama squarely on middle ground of presidential vacation days used. Of the past five presidents, during their first term in office, only two, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton took less time off than Obama. Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and his son all spent much more time away from the White House than the current occupant. Obama’s retreat to Martha’s Vinyard in August 2011 sparked a particularly high number of criticisms, however at that point in his presidency he had only taken a total of 61 days off. Compared to that same time in office Ronald Reagan had spent 112 days on vacation and George W Bush had been away for a total of 180 days. Bill Clinton, at 28 days, had the least time off of recent presidents. Reagan held the total vacation day record of 436 until the younger Bush left office with a grand total of 977 days away from Washington, representing 1/3 of his presidency.
Cost has been called into question when criticizing the Obama family retreats, their latest Hawaiian Christmas getaway was trounced upon when the Hawaii Reporter estimated it cost taxpayers $4 million. Much of these estimates are derived from estimating air travel costs which came under heightened criticism because the First Family flew in ahead of the President. But what is not communicated is that all these associated costs are the same for any presidential trip. The transport of staff, security services, vehicles and equipment are all standard for all presidential travel. And considering the comparatively infrequent vacation time Obama and his family have afforded themselves, these criticisms are disingenuous as they simply do not account for the costs accrued by previous administrations’ travel.
This new round of presidential vacation criticism comes on the heals of Mitt Romney’s attempt to paint President Obama as out of touch due to his isolation within the ivory tower of the White House, fawned over by an adoring staff of “true believers”. Beyond the political rhetoric, there is truth in Romney’s statement but inaccuracies beguile his characterization of the Obama administration. The U.S. presidency, unfortunately, is isolated and has become increasingly so as it has functionally evolved over time, most notably in the arena of presidential security in the post-9/11 world. Yet, despite this, Obama has reached out to the public more than many of his recent predecessors, through town hall style public forums and his embrace of social media. He has held virtual public meetings through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube which have given average Americans a chance to ask him questions and air their grievances. This hardly speaks to a president content to wallow away his time in a lofty perch surrounded by admirers.
While it is all too enticing to accept any and all criticism of the incumbent, especially during an election year, doing so out of context, without comparison to even recent history only serves to fill the well of misinformation. It’s a disservice to voters and does nothing to further the debate of substantive matters. It’s a distraction whose intent is to do nothing more than sensationalize and mislead.