Obama away at critical time in health debate

President Barack Obama’s week-long vacation in Massachusetts just may be the right prescription to put his health reform efforts back on track.

Obama left Sunday for a week at Martha’s Vineyard, with no scheduled public events before he returns on Aug. 30. Only family and friends will be joining the president, with much of the White House staff already on vacation.

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The president’s break comes after he spent the first weeks of this month’s congressional recess holding repeated town hall forums that were notably calmer than congressional forums — but not necessarily more successful. A Washington Post-ABC News poll published Friday put Obama’s approval rating at 57 percent, down 12 points from April, with much of the damage attributed to public uncertainty over healthcare.

Given that the president’s push hasn’t significantly shifted public sentiment, Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at The Cook Political Report, said the time off could actually help by lowering the decibel level of the debate.

“The question of momentum is a complicated one since momentum here is clearly in the eyes of the beholder,” Duffy said. “But, a less toxic environment could make it easier for the White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress to get some work done on the issue.”

Likewise, Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and author of a book on Obama, said the vacation could help. He said President Ronald Reagan — a former actor — was so in tune with his public image that he seldom allowed himself to be seen during his vacations.

“Sometimes presidents push too hard, too much of the time, and it's a good thing for them to step off the stage,” Sabato said. “I still remember the long-view lenses that TV cameras had to use to get the haziest, shimmering videos of Reagan riding a horse on vacation. Only the most unreasonable people don't see the need for a president to take some down time — if you get any real down time as POTUS. It's possible that people will take a look at a happy Obama, surrounded by family, and feel more positive about him.”

Yet Obama’s break comes at a critical time for the healthcare push, with Republicans maintaining united opposition and Democratic leaders considering revising their strategy when Congress reconvenes in September. Another two weeks of town halls that have so far involved heated debate, with no public pushback from Obama, could further public disapproval.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs reminded reporters on Friday, however, that progress continues to be made on the legislation beyond public view. A group of six bipartisan senators on the Finance Committee held a 90-minute conference call on Thursday night, he noted, and Obama was told the group is “making progress.”

Gibbs also said polls have shown public support for healthcare changes, and he rapped the media for considering August a “make-it-or-break-it month.”

“I don't know which cable network will make September an even more important month than August, and then if this thing gets to October I can only imagine that that will soon be a more important month,” Gibbs said.

“Much is always made of where things are at a certain point in the process. The president's viewpoint is not to worry too much about the 24-hour news cycle and focus more on the overall process and the overall policy. So I don't know that I would read a tremendous amount into any specific time period like August.”

Republicans have been making hay of Obama's plummeting polls and impending vacation. For example, House Republicans on Friday sent out the following message:

"As the President starts packing for the Vineyard, we have to wonder whether given a do-over, he might have taken the vacation two weeks earlier... What will that mean for the overall state of play? With poll numbers plummeting (especially among independents), continued Democrat-on-Democrat infighting, and election forecasters sounding the alarm bells for the majority party, this is certainly not the summer that the White House and leading Democrats had hoped for."

Obama’s week-long withdrawal from Washington pales in comparison with a five-week break that his predecessor, President George W. Bush, took in mid-2006 — the longest presidential break in 36 years.

By the spring of 2008, Bush had spent nearly 900 days on vacation at his Texas ranch — breaking the previous record, set by Reagan, of spending the most vacation time away from the White House.