1,461 Days of Summer

Column: Obama’s endless second-term vacation

Obama laughs while thinking about the shattered dreams of soldiers / AP
August 22, 2014

The headline was brutal. "Bam’s Golf War: Prez tees off as Foley’s parents grieve," read the cover of Thursday’s New York Daily News. Obama’s gaffe was this: He had denounced the beheading of James Foley from a vacation spot in Martha’s Vineyard, then went to the golf course. Seems like he had a great time. Such a great time that he returned to the Farm Neck Golf Club—sorry, membership is full—the next day.

Technically, Obama’s vacation began on August 9. It is scheduled to end on Sunday, August 24. With the exception of a two-day interlude in D.C., it has been two weeks of golf, jazz, biking, beach going, dining out, celebrating, and sniping from critics, not all of them conservative, who are unnerved by the president taking time off at a moment of peril.

Attacking the president for vacation is usually the job of the out party. But these days it is the job of all parties. Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, ISIL, Ebola, child migrants on the border, racial strife in Ferguson, an American murdered by the caliphate—critics say the president who danced to every song at Ann Jordan’s birthday party seems remote and aloof from, and even mildly annoyed by, such concerns.

I disagree. Not with the judgment that Obama is detached, dialing it in, contemptuous of events that interfere with his plans. I disagree with the idea that this August has been different, in any meaningful way, from the rest of Obama’s second term. For this president, the distinction between "time off" and "time on" is meaningless. For this president, every day is a vacation. And has been for some time. He is like Cosmo Kramer of Seinfeld. "His whole life is a fantasy camp," George Costanza says of his friend. "People should plunk down $2,000 to live like him for a week." Imagine what they would pay to live like Obama.

Uncomfortable with all of the golf on Martha’s Vineyard? It is but a fraction of Obama's habit. Since 2009, the president has played more than 185 rounds, typically with Wall Street cronies such as Robert Wolf and sports celebrities such as Alonzo Mourning, Tony Kornheiser, and Michael Wilbon. So devoted to golf is Obama that he wears Game Golf, which tracks how well a golfer shoots. Game Golf is not something you wear as a lark. You use it to study and hone your game. The hours on the course are just the start; there are also the hours spent analyzing results at home. Obama is not golfing like an amateur. He’s golfing like a man who wants to join the PGA tour.

While on vacation, the Obamas dined at Atria, where the cioppino costs $42 and sides include olive oil whipped potatoes and truffle-parmesan fries. But fine dining is not something the Obamas limit to the beach. They are foodies, patronizing the best restaurants in Chicago, D.C., Old Town, New York, Key Largo, and Los Angeles. I have been to some of these restaurants; the president has great taste. Recently, as part of his "bear is loose" shtick, he has visited sandwich places, bars, and coffee shops. He meets the public, he becomes associated with a fashionable locale, and he spends a few dollars on small businesses. It’s a good thing. Here, at last, is an Obama initiative that does not harm the economy.

Good food is not a luxury for Obama. It is a staple. Before the president departed for Martha’s Vineyard, he shared a limo ride with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. The general explained to the president the situation in Iraq. He warned of horrible consequences for the Yazidis, for Iraq, and for the United States if the jihadists conquered Mt. Sinjar and took Erbil. Obama decided to meet with his national security team. The presidential limo was diverted. Guess where it had been going. "The Italian dinner in Georgetown with Michelle Obama would have to wait," Politico reported.

Think two weeks in Martha’s Vineyard sends the wrong message? On July 31, Katy Perry performed at the White House. She was there to celebrate the Special Olympics—a worthy cause. But the same standard applies. If cutting loose in Martha’s Vineyard while ISIL is rampaging abroad is "bad optics," so is hosting a teenage dream while, in the words of Chuck Hagel, the "Middle East is blowing up." Propriety is not a word one associates with Katy Perry. The refrain of her latest hit: "So let me get you in your birthday suit / It’s time to bring out the big balloons." She’s not talking about party favors.

In the 1990s, we heard about the all-night delivery-pizza brainstorm sessions in the Clinton White House. In the teens, we hear about the soporific, self-congratulatory gourmet dinner parties where Obama is the star. In May, the New York Times recently reported, the president "was up well past midnight" hosting Ken Burns and his wife, two business executives, and hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer—Democratic donors all. "Previous dinners at the White House," the Times said, "have drawn varied celebrities, including Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, Morgan Freeman, and Bono." When Obama travels overseas, he is more interested in organizing dinners of "interesting Italians" than in organizing the Free World, such as it is, against autocrats and Islamists.

These long, languid, pretentious meals have become routine. Earlier this week, when Obama returned to Washington for a vacation "break," he did not take all of his meals at the White House. One night he had dinner at the home of Sam Kass, the chef and health activist who is engaged to MSNBC host Alex Wagner. Dinner lasted five hours. Again: This was during his break from vacation.

At another dinner earlier this year, in Paris, the president spent two hours at Restaurant Helen, where he drank champagne and caught up with old friends. A French investor seated nearby told the Times that Obama "seemed quite relaxed and glad to be with friends, without stress." I do not doubt it.

Criticizing the president the other day, Joe Scarborough nonetheless conceded, "Presidents are always working, whether on a golf course or behind a desk." But is that actually so? What, exactly, does President Obama do? He seems to learn everything from the papers—from the IRS scandal to the VA scandal to the mobilization of the Missouri National Guard. International events routinely take him by surprise. His professional activities include fundraising—40 events this year so far—and perfunctory addresses to the public. He goes through the presidential motions: meeting with officials and foreign dignitaries, holding press conferences, sitting for interviews, shipping MREs to endangered populations, ordering air strikes. But there is no passion behind these activities, no restless energy, no managerial competence, no sense of purpose or mission or strategy, none of the qualities associated with leadership in business, politics, and culture.

Donors complain the president does not schmooze, or even have much interest in what they are doing or thinking. Democrats on the Hill have the same complaint. "Obama Is Seen as Frustrating His Own Party," read the headline on the front-page of the Times this week. The story opened with a telling anecdote. The congressional leadership was meeting with the president at the White House. Harry Reid complained to President Obama that Mitch McConnell is holding up judicial nominations. Obama scoffed. "You and Mitch work it out," he told Reid. He wasn’t interested.

What does interest Obama is celebrity: His own, and that of others. He enjoys opportunities to expound on the world, as though he were an essayist for the New Yorker, which he surely will be soon after leaving office. He wants to be recognized in public, during his choreographed stops outside the White House, and during "major speeches" that lead to applause but no discernible change in affairs, and during appearances on talk shows, the more mindless the better. He likes intimate gatherings of rich and famous people, people who enjoy notoriety—though not nearly as much as he—people of means, people of uniform opinion on the state of the world, the economy, and, most importantly, the state of Barack Obama. He is interested in good food, in good company. He likes golf.

And he is interested in television. He watches HBO. Last winter, when the network’s CEO visited the White House for a state dinner, the president asked him for copies of "True Detective," and of "Game of Thrones." Obama watches "House of Cards." He subscribes to the theory that we are living in the rather oxymoronic "golden age of television." According to CBS, "His go-tos include ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘Mad Men,’ and ‘Homeland.’" So we know how Obama has spent at least 275 hours of his presidency. Did he punch out before watching Carrie go crazy?

This is the life: international travel, motorcades, sycophants and courtiers, tables at the best restaurants, round after round of golf, parties in a cool house, watching the best television shows, meeting all these renowned figures—and having them kiss up to you—ruminating over your legacy, over the causes of polarization, over the geopolitical situation, understanding other peoples’ motivations better than they do. Kramer has nothing on Obama. Politics, terrorists, Iran, Putin, Congress are all distractions. Best to enjoy the experience to the utmost. You are only president once.

In the 1990s, America had a holiday from history. Today, it has a president on holiday. The boundary separating vacation from vocation has disappeared. The party won’t end for years. And the hangover will be severe.