Shifting Politics in Presidents’ Vacations


BAR HARBOR, Me. — It has been 100 years, the local newspaper reports, since a sitting president chose this picturesque seaside village as his vacation spot. When William Howard Taft arrived in July 1910, he sprained his ankle playing golf, the captain of his yacht got “a terrible sunburn” and the townsfolk made such a ruckus about who would entertain him that Mr. Taft decided to give a speech from the bandstand on the village green.

President Obama faces pressures of a different sort.

Mr. Obama arrived here Friday for a summer weekend getaway with his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia, 12, and Sasha, 9 — a precursor to a longer family vacation they are planning next month on Martha’s Vineyard. But what sounds like a much-needed family escape from the literal and political heat of Washington to some sounds like hypocrisy to others, given recent statements by both the president and first lady urging Americans to spend their vacation time and money along the shores of the oil-stricken Gulf of Mexico.

“Michelle Obama: Take your Vacation in the Gulf, America — If You Need Us, We’ll be In Maine,” blared the headline on the Web site of Michelle Malkin, the conservative commentator, on Monday, the day Mrs. Obama toured the gulf. ABC News served up similar, if more muted fare: “First Lady Encourages Americans to Vacation on Gulf — But Obamas Head to Maine Instead.”

A trip to the Gulf Coast, of course, would hardly be much of a vacation for Mr. Obama, whose political fortunes were undercut by the spill. But the flap does point up how politically fraught the modern presidential vacation — or, for that matter, presidential leisure time in general — has become.

Bill Clinton and his family traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyo., in the summer of 1996 after polling showed that Americans viewed Martha’s Vineyard as too elitist. George W. Bushcaught so much flak for spending a month at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., in the summer of 2001, said his former press secretary, Ari Fleischer, that his staff printed T-shirts listing all the work-related side trips he had taken. Mr. Fleischer may disagree with Mr. Obama’s policies, but he said he was protective of the president’s right to “recharge his batteries” wherever it suited him.

“I just think that people should leave the president alone and not make a political issue of where he takes vacation or how he takes vacation,” Mr. Fleischer said. “He and his family are perfectly entitled to do whatever works for them.”

What suits the Obamas, it seems, are national parks; they so enjoyed a trip to Yellowstone last summer, said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, that “it was natural” for them to do it again. They settled on Acadia National Park on the shores of Mount Desert Island, with its rocky coastline, rugged peaks and historic carriage roads, built by the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Within an hour after Air Force One touched down at the local airport Friday afternoon, the Obama family was exploring those roads on bicycle. After a 90-minute ride, the presidential motorcade took them up Cadillac Mountain, at 1,500 feet the highest peak on the Atlantic Coast. There the family strolled the paths along the mountain’s edge as tourists were held at bay in the parking lot. Mr. Obama later surprised some fellow visitors by greeting them. Later, he stopped in downtown Bar Harbor and took the girls for ice cream.

Politics and perception are never far from a president’s leisure decisions. Ronald Reaganrode his horse every morning while visiting his Santa Barbara ranch, and in the afternoon he chopped wood, activities designed to reinforce his public image as a rugged Westerner. It also helped him escape criticism that he was luxuriating too much.

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