President Barack Obama recently departed for his annual family vacation, leaving the White House for the upscale Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard. As he left, he was slammed with a barrage of criticism for supposedly detaching himself from important affairs of state at a time when the world was in crisis.
But in fact, Obama has been slammed for virtually every “vacation” he has ever taken. One leading conservative publication even lambasted him for taking 31 overseas trips, as if meeting with other world leaders and attending economic summit meetings were not part of any president’s job, and somehow constituted “vacations.”
“There are a lot of stupid ways people attack presidents from the other party, but there can’t be that many as stupid as the complaint that he takes too many vacations,” wrote Paul Waldman in The American Prospect. “Liberals used to talk plenty about [George W.] Bush’s vacations when he was president. And it was ridiculous then too.”
“Sign me up as a charter member of the movement to STFU about presidential vacations. Both sides do it,” wrote Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum. “No more whining about how this week — yes, this very week! — is the worst week ever in history for a vacation because the world is in crisis. You know why? Because there’s always a crisis somewhere in the world.”
It is true that Bush vacationed far more than Obama: while Obama has so far taken 20 “vacations” totaling 129 days, while at the same point in his presidency Bush had “vacationed” 58 times for 381 days — the equivalent of more than a full year of “vacation” time in Bush’s first 5 1/2 years in office.
Bush also irritated his critics by sometimes appearing arrogant about his vacationing, as in August 2002, when while standing on a golf course, he appeared to make light of a Hamas-backed suicide bombing in Israel, telling reporters, “I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Now watch this drive.”
How many vacation days a president takes would appear, judging by history, to have no actual effect on a president’s ability to do his job. The hardest-working president in recent history, judged by vacation days, was Jimmy Carter, who took just 79 vacation days in his single, four year term.
Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, spent 335 days on “vacation” at his ranch in California. But Reagan was “on vacation” when he made one of the most important decisions of his presidency, to fire striking the federal air-traffic controllers who walked off their jobs in 1981.
But as Scott Farris of The Washington Post pointed out, our seemingly vacation-happy modern presidents are paragons of the work ethic compared to the great presidents of history.
The United States’ sixth president, John Quincy Adams, spent eight months out of the capital — which was then Philadelphia — during his first two years as president. Abraham Lincoln spent one out of every four days on “vacation,” even as the Civil War tore the country apart.
It is also worth noting that presidential “vacations” are really less about fun in the sun and more about making the White House a mobile unit. Presidents — both Democrats and Republicans — never “vacation” without most of their top aides, a security apparatus and everything they require to make the same decisions and carry out the same duties as they would during any day spent within the confines of the White House.
Studies have repeatedly shown that taking time away from the stress of work results in better job performance and increased problem-solving ability. Presidents never really get time completely away from work — their office comes with them. There are few other jobs that require workers to take their offices — including most of their co-workers — along when they try to take a little, much-needed time to regroup. But allowing presidents, Obama or any president, at least some escape from the daily routine of the oval office, the research would appear to indicate, can only benefit the country as a whole.