Tee Time: The Optics of Presidential Vacations

WASHINGTON – Franklin Delano Roosevelt used to hop on the presidential railcar, the Ferdinand Magellan, and roll down to Warm Springs, Ga., seeking relief for his shriveled legs.

Harry Truman would gather his cronies, including Chief Justice Fred Vinson, and head for what became known as the Little White House in Key West, Fla., for marathon poker games and afternoons of fishing. Those trips were vital, Give-Em-Hell Harry once explained, because 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was the “crown jewel of the American prison system.”

Not to be outdone, Ronald Reagan embraced Rancho del Cielo, better known as the Western White House, near Santa Barbara, Calif., where he could ride horses and occasionally delight pool photographers by wielding an ax to chop wood.

The history of presidential vacations is a long one. John Adams, the second president, left Washington, D.C., in 1798 to tend to his ailing wife, Abigail, back in Massachusetts.

He didn’t return for seven months.

That trip and similar presidential retreats have almost always drawn criticism – biographer David McCullough reported that Adams foes tried to start a war with France during his prolonged absence and even joked that he had abdicated.

It’s no different today. President Obama heard the grunts and groans before his return to the White House Sunday afternoon after two days of golf and family activities at the Ocean Reef Club on Key Largo, Fla.

“Only President Obama would deliver a brief speech about education and then have the nerve to jet over to the posh Ocean Reef Clubs -- an exclusive members-only resort for the wealthy -- for a quick vacation,” said Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “As President Obama enjoys the Florida Keys and Vice President Biden vacations in the Virgin Islands for the weekend, their economic policies are still leaving millions of middle-class Americans and young adults struggling to get by in the Obama economy.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican from Georgia, made note of Obama’s vacation plans during an appearance at the recently concluded meeting of CPAC, tying the weekend trip to the ongoing crisis in the Crimea.

"I believe he can be as ineffective in Key Largo as he was in the White House,” Gingrich said.

The White House ignored the jibes and insisted Obama conducted his sundry duties without complications over the three-day weekend.

"The fact of the matter is what the president is doing this weekend in Florida is essentially what the president would be doing if he stayed back at the White House," administration spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama. The president, he said, was looking forward to "getting a little bit of downtime in the warm weather with his wife and daughters."

The Key Largo trip was Obama’s third holiday so far this year. He and his family took a 15-day vacation trip to his native Hawaii over Christmas and spent a weekend in California after a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan near Palm Springs.

Over his first five-plus years in office, Obama has unofficially taken about 120 vacation days, meaning that by the end of his tenure the total likely will come up short of 200 days, which would place him well below the usual rest and relaxation level assumed by many of his predecessors.