When British Prime Minister David Cameron learned that a British-sounding ISIS terrorist had beheaded American journalist James Foley, he cut short his vacation in Cornwall and rushed back to London on Wednesday to convene emergency meetings on the situation in Syria and Iraq. President Obama, by contrast, delivered an angry condemnation of the action from his vacation spot on Martha’s Vineyard, then took off for another round of golf.
It’s not that Obama didn’t say all the right things during his impromptu press conference – that the Islamic State is a “cancer” that must be extracted from the Middle East and that “no just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every day.” Moreover, the president broke off from his vacation for 48 hours early this week to return to Washington for important meetings on the Iraq crisis and the civil disorder in Ferguson, Mo., before returning to his family and the golf links in the plush island resort off the coast of Massachusetts.
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Maybe what was most disconcerting to some was the president’s casual manner and attire at a time of extraordinary national distress. When the country seems clearly headed for renewed major conflict in Iraq, when thousands of angry black citizens from the St. Louis area are protesting the police shooting of an unarmed black youth, and when a humanitarian crisis continues to fester along the Southwest border, the optics of the president dressed in a sports jacket sans tie were jarring.
As The Washington Post reported yesterday, this wasn’t the first time this month that Obama “has made a quick pivot from grim news to the green.” Last week, as his administration was being confronted with mounting demonstrations and unrest in Ferguson and tough decisions on stepping up air strikes against the murderous ISIS, Obama addressed the nation and then “hit the golf course just four minutes after leaving the lectern.”
The question of whether a president should occasionally sacrifice his family’s vacation in the face of a major breaking crisis has long been debated. President Theodore Roosevelt famously spent much of August 1905 in Portsmouth, N.H., while supervising negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese war, Newsweek once noted, while President George H.W. Bush took off on a 25-day vacation to his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, in August 1990 after dispatching troops to the Middle East in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
In this modern technological era, the White House communications system easily travels with a president, whether on an overseas trip, a campaign swing throughout the country, or while the First Family is on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. But occasionally the problem isn’t the adequacy of the communications system – and the ability to respond instantaneously to fast-paced events, but the appearance of disengagement. With both Obama and Congress on summer vacation, the nation’s capital has an abandoned, desolate feel to it right now.
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And for a president whose public approval rating is little more than 40 percent, it’s important for Obama to project the image of a man at the helm of the ship of state during a trying period in the nation’s history.
"Presidents can handle the business of their office from anywhere in the world. That is not the point,” said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “Leadership requires focus and empathy and that is not shown when the president is on vacation on Martha's Vineyard. There are times when a president should return to Washington to deal with a crisis and this may be one of them."
Obama and his family have four more days of vacation before heading home. Maybe they should leave now.
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