President Obama heads to Martha's Vineyard for a can’t-win vacation

Critics are lining up to blast the president for taking time off amid continued economic turbulence as President Obama jets off for his annual August vacation.

Obama left the White House Thursday afternoon to join his family in Martha’s Vineyard, where he is expected to stay for about a week.

The optics of a president vacationing at a tony, upscale spot while the country faces unprecedented challenges is not new. This will be the third August in a row that Obama has headed to the Vineyard, once a stomping ground for former President Clinton during his administration.

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But Obama's time away comes at a precarious time for the economy and his presidency.

The unemployment rate stands at 9.1 percent, and markets plunged Thursday on new fears about the global economy, with the Dow Jones falling more than 400 points.

The anxiety in the markets, triggered in part by forecasts for slower growth in the U.S. economy, is adding to uncertainty about whether the country could be be headed into a double-dip recession.

Obama announced this week that he would propose a new jobs package after Labor Day, but this has only provoked questions about why he would wait until after his vacation to unveil new ideas.

Obama’s approval ratings are at an all-time low, and Republicans hoping to replace him are traversing the country to bash his policies. House GOP leaders, who are having an increasing influence on Washington’s economy policy, are also blaming all economic ills on the administration.

Criticism is also starting to come from the left; Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) on Thursday blasted the White House for waiting until September to announce a jobs plan.

A White House spokesman on Thursday declined to talk about the stock market fluctuations, but said Obama would stay engaged on the economy through regular updates from his team. 

Brian Deese, the deputy director of the National Economic Council, will travel to Martha's Vineyard next week "to provide regular updates and briefings for the president," Josh Earnest, White House principal deputy press secretary, told reporters during a gaggle on Air Force One.

Earnest also defended the president's need for a vacation, and said Obama continues to carry his responsibilities as president wherever he goes.

"At the same time, he's also a husband and a father. And I don't think the American people begrudge the president spending a little time with his wife and daughters, at the end of the summer, before his daughters head back to school."

Democratic strategist Karen Finney echoed Earnest's comments. 

“In truth, most people likely don't begrudge the president having some down time with his family, and usually a president's vacation is still filled with a lot of work,” Finney said.

“It’s not the kind of job that gets put on hold for a few days — there are still security briefings, calls, and of course the ability to respond in the event of an incident,” said Finney, a contributor to The Hill.

Still, political science professor Larry Berman said the optics are terrible.

“He loses either way,” said Berman, a professor at the University of California-Davis.

“By going, critics can continue their daily bombardment that he’s out of touch, and going to Martha’s Vineyard is hardly the bastion of those average laid off workers he cares about helping,” he said.

Berman suggests it would be a smarter political move for Obama to at least stay near D.C. to send the signal he’s on the job.

“He could opt for a 'stay-vacation' to symbolize the plight of so many Americans, but the White House is hardly hardship at home,” Berman said. “I think they should all go to Camp David and from there he can take a few trips to let people know he’s not on the golf course.”

Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University, noted the humor in a situation where the president's rivals are arguing for less government but vilifying the commander-in-chief for going outside the Beltway.

“Many, including his 2012 presidential rivals, have been arguing for a smaller, less invasive government on the campaign trail,” Brown said. “It is rather amusing to see them now arguing on the trail that the president should go back to work and do more. Given many of their stump speeches, one would think his rivals would be pleased that he wasn't working.”

She said she’s surprised Obama’s GOP critics don’t tell him to take a vacation.

Despite the public-relations damage Obama is likely to incur, Democratic strategists like Finney note that there is still a lot of time between the August vacation and the November 2012 elections.

What is far more important, they say, is what Obama does when he gets back from vacation.

“It's unfortunate, but this is not what voters are going to care most about in November 2012,” Finney said of the president’s vacation. “If he can come back with a jobs plan and get something done — that's what people care about.”


—This story was posted at 4:05 p.m. and updated at 5:52 p.m.