Rupert Cornwell: Why Obama's seaside break is making waves

Out of America: With the economy teetering on the brink of a fresh recession, many in the US seem to begrudge the President his summer holiday

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Hold the front page. Barack Obama has just embarked on a 10-day summer holiday on Martha's Vineyard, the upmarket resort island just south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. After the most gruelling and dispiriting spell of his presidency, who could possibly begrudge him a week and a half off? As it turns out, just about everybody. At one level, in a country that spends more time at work than practically anywhere else in the industrial world, the fuss reflects a peculiarly American unease at the idea of a proper "get away from it all" holiday. But a President can never get away from it all. The world doesn't stop because its most powerful inhabitant is trying to get a bit of R&R. Like many of his compatriots, the President takes his job with him. For them, that means a BlackBerry on the beach. For him, it's a mini-White House on the move.

British Prime Ministers can repair to the grouse moors, slip away to Tuscany or Provence, or stroll the mountain meadows of Austria – and unless the freeloading is especially egregious, no one takes the slightest notice. And where, by the way, did John Major and Jim Callaghan go on holiday? Who remembers, and who even cared at the time? Not so here.

Even on holiday, the US President never escapes the White House press pool. A spokesman gives daily briefings – slacks and an open-neck shirt their main concession to the less formal circumstances. Key White House advisers are never far away, nor is the famous briefcase with the nuclear weapons code.

And presidential holidays have a way of being disturbed. George HW Bush was fishing in Maine when the abortive Soviet coup was staged in August 1991. Fourteen years later, his son was at his ranch in Texas when Hurricane Katrina struck, and George W never recovered from his tardy and lethargic response to the catastrophe. Presidential holidays can be dangerously distracting things.

But above all, the furore is political, and never more so than now, when the opposing party's presidential candidates are cranking up their campaigns, the economy is teetering on the edge of a new recession, and ordinary Americans are worried not about their holidays, but about their jobs – that is, assuming they are fortunate enough to have jobs.

Even some Democrats are worried that Obama is sending the wrong message by his choice of destination. For his foes, it is a case of the pampered emperor fiddling while Rome burns, and last week the Republican National Committee even opened a website, ObamaGetAway.com, on which you can choose from a selection of postcards depicting the 44th President at play. "Wish you happy job-hunting from sunny Martha's Vineyard," reads the message on one.

God forbid Obama had ever decided to spend his 10 days in Tuscany: congressional Republicans would have sought to impeach him for un-American activities and treasonous consorting with foreigners. But the Vineyard, that summer playground of wealthy, arugula-fancying, sauvignon blanc-sipping lefties, is bad enough.

This sort of criticism, it should be said, is as old as the republic. Back in 1799, the second President, John Adams, was savaged for spending months at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts, even though he had solid excuses: his beloved wife Abigail was extremely ill, and in those days summer-time Washington was a malarial swamp. But it's got much worse in the modern era – and Democrats seem to bear the brunt of it.

Paradoxically, that may be because they tend to be less rich. The big holiday-takers among recent Presidents have been the Republicans, none more so than Bush the son, who by this stage of his presidency had spent 181 days, or six months, at his ranch. Pity the poor hacks assigned to cover him: Dubya's idea of summer holiday fun was chopping brush and mountain-biking in the dusty 100 degree-plus temperatures of the empty plains of central Texas.

His father also liked his holidays, but those were in the rather more agreeable surrounds of the Bush family mansion, on a rocky promontory jutting out into the Atlantic. (I still have a faded pale blue polo shirt from those years, bearing the crest "Summer White House 1992, Kennebunkport, Maine"). Ronald Reagan was never happier than on his ranch in the hills, up above Santa Barbara, California, and Nixon had his western White House at San Clemente – though the famously stiff Nixon never managed to take his tie off, even for photo-ops by the Pacific surf. But the important thing was, these Presidents already had holiday homes. And Americans reasoned, what harm that they use them?

By comparison, Democratic Presidents have been positively Stakhanovite. Obama so far has clocked up just 61 days off, while Bill Clinton, at this moment in his presidency, had taken only 23 days of vacation. Neither, alas, owned a holiday property of their own. Nobody much minded when Obama rented a $3,500 (£2,150)-a-night place in Honolulu for Christmas and the New Year – after all, Hawaii was where he grew up. But the Vineyard is another matter.

For some reason, Democrats love the place. Clinton hated holidays but spent a week there during his first years in office. Then re-election loomed. Famously, Clinton had a poll taken to see which holiday location went down best with voters. Out west, came the answer, so an unhappy President spent chunks of August 1995 and 1996 living the outdoor life in Wyoming.

Obama, to his credit, is having none of that. Maybe he could score some brownie points by taking his family on a "typical" domestic holiday to Disneyland, the Delaware beaches, or some national park (safely within US borders, of course). But even then, hotels would have to be booked and special communications set up, amid security precautions, making life a misery for all and sundry.

The Vineyard, however, knows the score, and doesn't seem to mind. And if it makes Obama happy, so much the better. The American presidency is arguably the most nerve-racking and generally impossible job on earth. Surely the man deserves a decent break?



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