CHILMARK, Mass. – President Barack Obama has spent less time away from the White House than his predecessors. But his two-week break on the resort island of Martha’s Vineyard and hours on the golf course have his detractors teeing up as they highlight the slew of foreign policy crises currently facing the United States.
The criticism has the president’s aides confronting a question it faces whenever Obama gets away: Is there ever a good time for the commander in chief to take a few days off?
Since becoming president, Obama has taken 20 vacations lasting two to 15 days. As of Friday, he has spent all or part of 138 days on “vacation.”
By the same point in his second term, President George W. Bush spent 381 partial or complete days at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and another 26 at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, according to CBS News reporter Mark Knoller’s widely respected record keeping on the presidency. Other recent American leaders also spent more time away.
But images of Obama playing leisurely rounds of golf as the U.S. strikes Islamist militants in northern Iraq have been jarring to some, particularly his fiercest national security critics. After delivering an angry statement Wednesday condemning the beheading of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State group, Obama immediately hit the links.
“Every day, we find new evidence that he’d rather be on the golf course than he would be dealing with the crisis that’s developing rapidly in the Middle East,” former Vice President Dick Cheney told Fox News this week.
Obama, well known for his love of golf, has played eight rounds since arriving on the Massachusetts island 12 days ago. He went golfing last week after addressing the nation from the yard of his vacation home on Iraq and the civil unrest in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, linked to the fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old by a white police officer.
He plays most weekends when he is at the White House.
Some of the negative reaction reflects that the White House occasionally allows media to photograph the president when he is playing golf. By contrast, there are no photos of him playing basketball or during his regular gym workout.
With the U.S. engaged militarily in Iraq, and struggling to secure a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza and ease tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the White House released photos of Obama early in the vacation being briefed by top aides, including national security adviser Susan Rice and Attorney General Eric Holder. Other images captured him on the telephone with world leaders.
Obama’s aides counter criticism of his vacations by saying he travels with what essentially is a mini-White House. The entourage comes complete with top advisers and senior staff, and communications equipment needed to do the job from wherever he may be.
“Just because the president is in a different location doesn’t mean he’s not doing his job,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, who accompanied Obama on vacation. “He’s been deeply engaged on issues both domestically and abroad.”
Other presidents have vacationed during foreign policy flare-ups.
President George H.W. Bush took a three-week break in Maine in 1990 after ordering the U.S. military to turn back Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces in Kuwait. He swatted away questions about Persian Gulf action while on the golf course, later saying “I just don’t like taking questions on serious matters on my vacation. … I hope you’ll understand when I’m recreating, I will recreate. And when we’re working, which I’m trying up here, I’ll work hard.”
In 2002, President George W. Bush also was on the golf course when he reacted to terrorist bombings in Israel, saying: “I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive.”
Bush later gave up playing golf after the U.S. military death toll in Iraq began to rise. He has defended Obama’s fondness for golf.