When it comes to curbing unemployment, President Obama “will not rest” until everyone looking for a job can find one, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.
A couple of hours later, the White House put out an announcement that the president will soon begin a nine-day vacation in Martha’s Vineyard.
No one can credibly make the argument that Obama is loafing. He puts in the hours. But the trip is coming at a queasy moment for the economy and the markets. Stocks recorded another huge drop Wednesday, the third straight day of convulsive swings following Standard & Poor’s announcement that it was downgrading America’s credit rating. Unemployment remains high and the Federal Reserve on Tuesday presented a bleak picture of the overall economy.
So is this a good time for Obama to hole up on a tony Massachusetts island, playing golf with friends?
Some of his supporters believe the economic slowdown has reached a level of urgency that he should at least abbreviate the family trip, if not cancel it altogether.
“I think he can shorten his vacation and focus on this issue,” said Peter Buttenwieser, a major Democratic donor who counts himself as an admirer of Obama. “If there were a real jobs summit and a jobs push, I would feel much better. We’re not paying enough attention to jobs.”
In recent days, some Democrats have also called upon Obama to take dramatic action: perhaps summoning congressional leaders back from their recess to develop a jobs package.
Paul Begala, an advisor to a political action committee launched by two ex-Obama aides, said the president should quickly ask congressional leaders to convene a joint session of Congress to address the jobs issue.
“I’m always for bold action,” said Begala, a former campaign advisor to President Clinton. “The whole focus of the country for the last month has been on these terrible negotiations over the debt ceiling. That hurt everybody. He’s got to turn the page. The president can’t wave a magic wand, but he has the power to set the agenda. Now’s the time.”
Obama has resisted such steps. And he’s not willing to give up his Martha’s Vineyard trip, which has become an August ritual for the Obama family.
A White House advisor says that if an event is important enough to make it onto Obama’s schedule, it’s important enough to remain there. So canceling a presidential trip, even a vacation, isn’t done lightly.
Carney said Wednesday that “there’s no such thing as a presidential vacation. The presidency travels with you.”
Asked if Obama might consider extraordinary action to cope with the sputtering economy, Carney said: “If you’re talking about a stunt, I don’t think a stunt is what the American people are looking for. They’re looking for leadership and they’re looking for focus on economic growth and job creation.”
If the past is any guide, Obama will spend his time on the Vineyard golfing, cycling, reading books, playing board games with family and going out to dinner with friends. He will once again stay at a 28-acre estate in Chilmark that in past summers has commanded a rental fee of about $50,000 a week.
In making the trip, of course, Obama risks looking out of touch with everyday Americans coping with $3.60-a-gallon gas and flat wages. In Washington-speak, that’s called an “optics” problem.
Obama will try to address it beforehand. Beginning Monday, he’ll take a three-day bus tour through the Midwest, stopping in Minnesota, Iowa and his home state of Illinois. He’ll talk to families and small business owners and discuss ways to bolster the middle class.
After months of brinksmanship over the debt ceiling, the tour gives Obama a chance to refocus on jobs. The question: Will it be enough to counter hardening perceptions that Obama isn’t up to the nation’s economic challenges? A CNN poll released Monday showed that only 34% approved of Obama’s handling of the economy.
After the bus tour ends, Obama will head for the Vineyard, dropping out of public view.
Some believe that’s not such a bad idea. As much as politicians need a break from the public, the public needs a break from politicians.
“Frankly, most Americans would welcome all of Washington standing down for a while,” said Sean Smith, a former Obama administration aide. “Every time they’re forced to confront the way Washington works or doesn’t work, it leaves a sour taste in their mouths. So if everyone gets off the stage for a little bit, I don’t think the country is going to miss it.”