Opinion: Obama’s Hawaii vacation not much of a vacation

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Maybe it should have been a sign when President Obama delayed his Hawaiian vacation until the Senate passed the healthcare bill: There wasn’t going to be a whole lot of relaxing going on this Christmas.

Sure, there’s been the requisite Hawaiian vacation activities -- golf, basketball, tennis, picnics and snorkeling, but for every minute of fun, the president has had hours and hours of briefings and secure conference calls.


It hasn’t helped, of course, that at 7 a.m. on Obama’s first full day of vacation, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to blow up Northwest Air Flight 253 as it landed in Detroit.

Since then, Obama has been briefed on paper roughly six times a day, said senior advisor Denis McDonough. He gets two updates from the National Counterterrorism Center, three from the Situation Room and one morning briefing on security issues.

He’s had a secure phone call with advisors Gen. James Jones, John Brennan and Tom Donilon. He’s given two speeches to the media. After the first, he went to play tennis with his wife. After the second, he joined his family on the beach where they were snorkeling. A senior advisor told reporters Tuesday that the president was also in ‘continual consultation with and contact with’ his economic and domestic policy advisors.

The president is ‘very mindful of the fact that there is a series of challenges that are as -- that are as present and upfront for him here as they are back in Washington,’ the advisor said.

He’s still faced critics such as Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who has called for the president... be more present during the fallout from the thwarted terrorist attempt. King compared Obama’s failure to come forward to President Bush’s decision to stay at his home near Crawford, Texas, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans.

‘At a time like this, it is important that the president of the United States step forward,’ he said on CNN.

Even without politics, Obama’s days are frenzied. He works out at the Marine Corps Base before dawn every morning, including Christmas Day. On Sunday, a day many people might watch football and sleep in, Obama left for the gym at 6:36 a.m., worked out and played basketball with staff there for two hours, was briefed about another unruly airline passenger, and then went to the beach with his family -- all before noon. That night, the Obamas went out to dinner for about 2 1/2 hours, not leaving for home until 11 p.m., making Sunday a 16-hour day.

On Monday, Obama had just started a round of golf when he left the course unexpectedly and rushed back to the compound where he was staying without any explanation. Minutes later, an ambulance with flashing lights drove past a confused press corps. It was later revealed that the son of the Whitakers, Obama family friends, had had a beach accident and Obama wanted to make sure the father was with his son. They soon returned to the golf course.

The long days and constant news have made the Obamas’ vacation not very fun for the staff and media traveling with the president. Journalists spend most of the day in a frigid ballroom in the Moana Surfrider hotel in Waikiki, waiting to hear if any other news is breaking, or if any officials will drop by for briefings. A recent dinner featured yawning journalists checking BlackBerrys for new developments on the thwarted terrorist plot, ready for bed by 10 p.m.

White House staffers have been waking between 3 and 4 in the morning because of the time difference with Washington, D.C., and spending 17-hour days in windowless hotel conference rooms, not on the beach. Many are skipping meals. Most haven’t gotten the chance to don the bathing suits they toted all the way from Washington. For some, it was reminiscent of the Obamas’ vacation to Martha’s Vineyard in August, when a vacation that had been promised to be low on news became hectic rapidly when Obama announced the reappointment of Ben Bernanke as the Federal Reserve Board chairman.

This time around, the White House seems to have learned its lesson. Before leaving Washington, spokesman Nick Shapiro announced that ‘work and various briefings do not stop when you are president of the United States.’

— Alana Semuels

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Top photo: Presidential motorcade sweeps through Hawaii. Credit: Associated Press. Middle photo: President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet people at a Marine base in Kaneohe Bay. Credit: EPA. Bottom photo: Hawaiian sunrise. Credit: AFP/Getty Images.