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WHITE HOUSE

Campaign-Season Vacations Are OK, but Beware of Water Sports

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(AP Photo / Charles Dharapak / Doug Mills / AP Photo/Laura Rauch)

Democrats who remember their nominee windsurfing his way to defeat in 2004 are thrilled that President Obama won’t be hobnobbing with the elite in Martha’s Vineyard this August. But even as they make fun of Republican Mitt Romney’s recent vacation, it’s worth noting that the leader of the free world could benefit from some downtime.

The age-old Washington debate over where, when, and how much a president should vacation predates both Washington and democracy itself. “Don't leave Rome!... There is no time for vacations during a campaign,” Quintus Cicero implored his brother, Marcus Tullius, in 64 B.C. More than 2,000 years later, Obama seems to be taking that advice.

 

(GALLERY: The Tricky Politics of Candidate Vacations)

Election-year pressures didn’t stop challenger Romney from heading to his Lake Winnipesaukee estate for his usual summer break: a week of competitive sports with his children and grandchildren. Romney’s unshakable commitment to a summer reunion demonstrated the candidate’s family values, but it also provided political opponents with photos of Romney sitting on a Jet Ski and driving a swanky motorboat. The pictures revived memories of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the 2004 Democratic nominee, whose windsurfing hobby provided footage for a highly effective attack ad.

“For Romney to say, 'I want to take some time off' — that is a smart move. For Romney to say, ‘I want to take some time off and go out on a Jet Ski’ — that’s a stupid move. His problem was optics, not rest,” said Tad Devine, president of Devine Mulvey and a senior strategist to Kerry’s presidential campaign. Devine knows that it’s all too easy for vacation footage to fuel a negative stereotype: George W. Bush’s  reelection campaign used windsurfing to reinforce the image of Kerry as a flip-flopper, zig-zagging with the wind.

 

Although the Jet Ski visual didn’t ruffle many Republican feathers, it played right into Democrats’ attempts to portray Romney as the candidate of the wealthy and Obama as the candidate sensitive to the struggles of the middle class. “Obama probably wanted to stay away from a vacation that smacked of privilege,” said Paul A. Beck, political-science professor at Ohio State University.

Obama is not the first president to spurn Martha’s Vineyard for political reasons. Former President Bill Clinton famously swapped the Vineyard for Jackson Hole, Wyo., on the advice of his pollster, a move that the Clintons didn’t particularly enjoy.

“The public was sick of the photos of his hobnobbing with celebrities and cruising on their yachts and the polling showed that they would rather see their president camping in the Rockies. So he went for two vacations — 1995 and 1996 — and hated it,” the pollster in question, Dick Morris, told U.S. News and World Report in 2010. “But it helped his polling."

For sitting presidents, taking a vacation requires huge security details and lots of preparation. That’s why many presidents tend to return to the same vacation homes or family retreats year after year, said Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution.

 

Obama’s decision to forsake the Vineyard doesn’t send a particularly strong populist signal in and of itself, Hess said. People know the president is a best-selling author who can afford to vacation in seaside resorts. He’s also president of the United States, anything but an average American.

But context — and contrast — matter. President George H.W. Bush had a family retreat in the tony resort town of Kennebunkport, Maine, and President Kennedy vacationed at a family compound in Hyannis Port, Cape Cod. While Kennedy’s vacations solidified his glamour, Romney’s vacation has been less well received. “I can’t remember comparable articles about Hyannis Port,” Hess said, reflecting on some of the negative press Romney has faced.

Optics aside, presidential candidates should take a vacation, experts say, in order to pace themselves, reassess their campaign’s progress, and gear up for the fall. “The people who would oppose it are ghouls. We all try to take a vacation!” Hess said. 

Candidates who are overworked also make mistakes. “For the Romney guys, the idea of not burning the guy out is really smart,” Devine said. He urged Obama’s aides to make sure the president gets a break, too.

“Here’s a guy who has the most difficult job in the world every single day and is facing a very, very tough campaign. He absolutely should try to take some time off,” Devine added. “The vice president can campaign. They’ve got other surrogates who can do things. Most importantly, they’ve got a massive television campaign going on in the states right now. That’s not going to take any vacation.”

The Obama White House is not conducting any polls in search of the vacation that would play best with voters. But Obama has been highlighting a very specific kind of vacation on the campaign trail.

“The best vacation I had when I was a kid,” he told voters recently in Poland, Ohio, was when “my grandmother and my mom and my sister, we traveled around the country on Greyhound buses and on trains and we stayed at Howard Johnsons. I was 11 and so if there was any kind of swimming pool — it didn’t matter how big it was, right, you'd spend the whole day there.” 

 

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