As President Obama and his family arrived at posh Martha’s Vineyard on Sunday for a weeklong vacation, a collection of lawmakers took to the airwaves to critique his healthcare overhaul and offer advice.
Supporters welcomed the first family to the secluded island retreat. Dozens of people lined the roads from the Vineyard Haven airport to the Obamas’ rented 28-acre compound, Blue Heron Farm, and its stretch of private beach that is sealed off by the Secret Service. Children sat atop vans and convertibles to get a better view, and people hoisted signs greeting the vacationers with “Aloha Obama Family” and “Hope, Obama!”
Aides describe this as a non-working vacation, with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs insisting that, if there are any hot meetings with the president this week, they’ll happen on the golf course.
But Gibbs conceded that Obama might make a few phone calls to members of the Senate Finance Committee, where some are trying to craft a bipartisan solution to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system.
The temptation to speak his mind may be too much for the president to resist. Just because he’s taking a week’s break doesn’t mean the healthcare debate is doing the same thing.
On the Sunday talk shows, the national conversation continued at close to full volume.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) warned that Obama should scale back his healthcare push in light of persistent concerns about the economy. In particular, Lieberman said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Obama should delay his effort to make sure every American has health insurance.
“We morally, every one of us, would like to cover every American with health insurance,” Lieberman said. “But that’s where you spend most of the $1 trillion-plus” that the healthcare overhaul is estimated to cost over 10 years. “And I’m afraid we’ve got to think about putting a lot of that off until the economy’s out of recession.”
Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with Democrats but endorsed Republican Sen. John McCain in last year’s presidential election, is in a key position. He and the other independent senator, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, are needed to give Democrats the 60 votes required to cut off debate and prevent a filibuster.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), also appearing on CNN, agreed that the nation’s “economic malaise” warranted putting off a major healthcare overhaul until at least next year.
McCain, on ABC’s “This Week,” urged Obama to drop the so-called public option -- a government insurance plan. He suggested that the president meet with members of both parties to find common ground.
And the lead Republican negotiator in the Senate healthcare effort, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said Obama was hampering those efforts by expressing -- by himself and through Cabinet members -- support for the public option, which congressional Republicans oppose.
Obama and others have recently signaled that the public option could be negotiable, as long as some other way could be found to inject competition for private insurers into the system.
“It would help if we would not get conflicting views from the White House,” Grassley said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
His comments, in particular, could prompt the president to respond.
Senior White House officials have not ruled out the possibility of a town hall -- which, in Obama world, might qualify as a fun vacation activity.
That’s probably not First Lady Michelle Obama’s notion of the ideal vacation. For months, aides have been planning as normal a summer getaway as possible, whittling down the possible sites until they found a secluded spot on a tony island, where stars and presidents have long been able to expect privacy.
The playground of the East Coast elite, Martha’s Vineyard hosted President Clinton during some of the toughest days of his administration.
The estate where the Obamas will be staying comes with a long stretch of beach and plenty of room, making it possible that the vacationers might not even venture off the grounds.
Some of the Obamas’ closest friends are joining them, including presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett and Chicago physician Eric Whitaker.
Obama’s proximity to Cape Cod has inspired speculation that he might visit ailing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a champion of healthcare reform who is sidelined with a brain tumor. However, the White House says there are no plans to do so.
McCain, for one, mourned Kennedy’s absence from the negotiating table.
“Ted Kennedy comes as close to being indispensable as any individual I’ve ever known in the Senate because he had a unique way of sitting down with the parties at a table and making the right concessions, which really are the essence of successful negotiations,” McCain said on ABC.
“So it’s huge that he’s absent, not only because of my personal affection for him, but because I think the healthcare reform might be in a very different place today.”
Meanwhile, on Martha’s Vineyard, a sandals-wearing White House spokesman told the media Sunday that he had a special message from the president:
“He wants you to relax and have a good time,” Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said. “Take some walks on the beaches.
“Nobody,” he added, “is looking to make news.”