Should the Obamas vacation on the Gulf Coast this year?

McClatchy NewspapersJune 9, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Should the Obamas vacation on the Gulf Coast this summer?

Last August, President Barack Obama, his wife Michelle, and daughters Sasha and Malia, enjoyed Martha's Vineyard, a Massachusetts island favored by the Clintons and the Kennedys and legendary for attracting members of the liberal elite.

Now however, with the BP oil spill threatening beaches from Louisiana to Florida, Obama has been making day trips to the Gulf show his concern, and he recently took a cue from Gulf state governors and implored Americans to travel there.

"Americans can help by continuing to visit the communities and beaches of the Gulf Coast," he said at a May 27 news conference. With few exceptions, he said, "all of the Gulf's beaches are open. They are safe and they are clean."

In that spirit, a McClatchy reporter asked White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs whether the Obamas themselves might consider spending their family vacation somewhere along the Gulf this summer.

Gibbs, a member of Obama's inner circle, demurred: "I have not been involved in their August plans. I don't know the answer to that." First Lady Michelle Obama's staff declined comment.

Many Gulf area business owners, and even some Republican Gulf state governors, would welcome the gesture.

"I think it would send a wonderful message," said Helen Spohrer, who lives on St. George Island, a barrier island off of Florida's gulf coast where seafood and tourism drive the economy. Spohrer has sold real estate there for 30 years and serves as chairwoman of a local tourist development council. Her husband is a nature photographer.

"People need to see that the beaches are open and for the most part things are normal," she said. "We have no effects, but the perception has kept people away. I think if the first family were to vacation here on the Gulf Coast, it would send a very, very positive message."

Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary for President George W. Bush, said that Obama "should take a vacation wherever he wants to and it would be sad if political pressure got in the way." Fleischer said vacations are important for presidents to be rested and to reconnect with their families. "Having been that close to it, I'm a big believer in you have to give a president downtime."

There are other considerations, however.

One is whether the spill is contained in time. Conditions in the water and along the coast by August — something no one can predict with certainty in early June — may dictate how much of a vacation President Obama can take at all. The spill already has prompted Obama to scrap a June trip to Indonesia and Australia.

"Folks down here are trying to encourage people to come to their vacation spots, but in the middle of an environmental catastrophe it's probably not a good idea for the president to be vacationing, period," said Brad T. Gomez, a Florida State University politics professor who specializes in public opinion. To do so, Gomez said, "would appear he's off the job."

"If he wants to send Michelle and the kids here, I'm sure they'll find a nice place to vacation," Gomez said.

Family's another concern. What do the girls want?

And what about public perception? Would a first family vacation on the Gulf Coast this summer come across as a generous gesture to bolster a stretch of the country that's reeling from the spill, or would Americans instead read it as some kind of phony stunt that sacrifices his family's interest for political imagery?

President Bill Clinton, running for re-election in 1996, infamously let polling drive his decision to skip Martha's Vineyard and head to Wyoming to suffer through a hiking adventure he wouldn't have chosen otherwise.

For Republican governors of Gulf Coast states (Florida GOP Gov. Charlie Crist is running as an independent for the U.S. Senate) an Obama family vacation could promote their suffering tourism and seafood industries — but it also could boost regional Democratic candidates in November races.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he's invited Obama to stay anytime at the Governor's Mansion, and that "every time the president comes to Louisiana the pace of response efforts picks up and things get done." However, Jindal didn't press for an Obama family vacation.

Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi said through his spokesman Dan Turner that he was reluctant to weigh in because Obama "already has vacation plans, and the governor isn't interested in embarrassing the president or in using a devastating disaster as a political toy."

Alabama's Gov. Bob Riley didn't respond to a request for comment.

Florida's Crist said it depends how the containment efforts go, but that "events of the day always have an impact on our schedule in public life."

If Obama is thinking about a family vacation on the Gulf Coast, Crist said, "I think it would be great idea." In Florida, especially, he added.

(Tish Wells contributed to this article.)

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