Commentary: Even presidents need a vacation

The Rock Hill HeraldAugust 26, 2011 

President Barack Obama is scheduled to end his vacation on Saturday and return to Washington, and most of us know how he feels. Well, sort of.

Most of us don't spend a significant part of our vacations being briefed by our national security team on the progress of rebels in Libya or answering questions from the press about a rare East Coast earthquake. But most of us know how the end of a vacation feels.

The end of a vacation tends to bring on that contradictory impulse to hurry up and relax. We also find ourselves working hard to have fun.

We fight the sense of dread that comes with an expiring vacation, that feeling of "where did all the time go?" We do anything we can to prevent ourselves from thinking about going back to work. Everything we do becomes the "last" thing - the last walk along the beach, last trip to the ice cream parlor, last nap, last pina colada, last night under the stars, last round of golf, last hike, last swim, last bike ride, last dinner with friends - before heading back to the drudgery of real life.

We often don't feel all that relaxed and refreshed after a vacation. Usually, we're worn out. Instead of recharging our batteries, we find ourselves in need of a new set.

But vacations are fun while they last. And half the fun often is anticipating them. And, of course, we can nurture happy memories down the road.

While vacations aren't always what our expectations allowed us to hope they would be, they at least provide a break from the routine and often a change of scenery. Few of us, I suspect, would prefer to skip vacations. It's doubtful that, on our death beds, we'll moan that we wish we'd worked harder instead of vacationing.

But we tend to begrudge our presidents their vacations. Critics pounced on Obama for deciding to spend a week with his family at Martha's Vineyard while so many people are suffering. Well, people always are suffering, nations are perpetually at war, economic turmoil is just around the corner, and natural disasters are occurring somewhere whenever a president decides to take a vacation.

And even when presidents are away from the White House, they have to cart their jobs with them, like a turtle with his shell. In addition to being briefed on Libya, Hurricane Irene and the world's economic picture, Obama also held an impromptu press conference to discuss the earthquake.

Most of the time, he also is being followed around by reporters and photographers. And, at somewhat greater distance, he is being pummeled by would-be challengers and others who can't believe that he is insensitive enough to take a vacation at a time like this.

For the record: Obama has taken 61 vacation days during 31 months in office. At this point in their presidencies, Ronald Reagan had taken 112 vacation days at his ranch, and George W. Bush had spent 180 days at his ranch.

Bush, in fact, retreated to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, for 25 straight days in 2002.

Bill Clinton, by the way, took only 28 days of vacation during his first 31 months in office.

But if you find yourself congratulating Clinton for being such a workhorse, ask yourself why. Why do we seem to want our presidents to be drudges who skip vacations? Do we think that will improve their job performance, make them stronger, prove that they are more dedicated?

If anything, skipping vacations is likely to diminish their ability to do their jobs - especially because the job is leader of the free world, with all the pressure and responsibility that entails. Just not having to make high-level decisions for a few days would be a relief.

Obama can't really get away from it all like most of us can. But on his first full day in the Vineyard, he reportedly took his two daughters to the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, a family favorite.

The press corps left him alone while he took the first lady to the Beach Plum Inn for dinner at sunset. He went to a couple of cocktail parties with residents of the island, biked with the family through the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, swam at a secluded beach and played four rounds of golf with two golfing buddies.

If Hurricane Irene threatens the New England coast, the Obamas might have to cut their vacation short and leave Martha's Vineyard today. I hope they get to stay the full time.

Everybody should take a vacation at least once a year. The president needs to set a good example.

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