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As the health care debate rages on, President Barack Obama will begin a week-long vacation Sunday in Martha’s Vineyard, an enclave of liberal royalty far from middle America, where his approval numbers are starting to stall.
Already, at least one group on the right is taking a jab at Obama over his beach vacation — at a 28-acre farm, said to rent for up to $50,000 a week. Obama has struggled against the perception that he has trouble connecting with average voters, and some are questioning his choice of a getaway spot for the well-to-do.
“The danger for President Obama is that he seems to be in what is one of the most elite summer resorts in the United States. From an image-making point of view, it would be better to be in the Wisconsin Dells or Put-in-Bay, Ohio,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian. “There is the connotation with Martha’s Vineyard of East Coast elitism…I have a feeling when they decided on Martha’s Vineyard they didn’t know the health care debate would be this brutal.”
The Republican group, Conservatives For Patients Rights, made an ad called “Surfs Up,” mocking Obama’s leisurely beachside vacation.
“The beach is nice this time of year but while President Obama vacations, concerns mount about his health care plan,” the ad says. “Mr. President, when you go back to D.C., drop your government run health care plan.”
But the White House has been unapologetic about both the need for Obama to take a break from the battle over his health plan, and about his choice of a venue.
“I don’t think the American people begrudge a president taking some time with his family that’s well-earned and well-deserved for a few days to see and spend time with them,” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. Gibbs also said the president isn’t planning any public events during his vacation but will be in touch with key congressional players.
The politics of presidential vacationing is hardly new. Obama’s predecessor steered clear of vacation spots of the rich and famous, but George W. Bush did take heat for spending a month or more at times on his ranch in Crawford, Tex. His father, President George H.W. Bush, also took flak for tooling around the family’s compound off Kennebunkport, Maine, in sleek cigarette boats during a recession.
Obama’s also has chosen a vacation spot associated with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who visited twice during his presidency – including once in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Sen. Edward Kennedy has a house in nearby Hyannisport, on Cape Cod. There was some speculation that Obama would visit Kennedy – who is battling a brain tumor – but the two will not meet, according to a Kennedy aide.
Initially, presidential vacation watchers speculated that one of the reasons Obama chose Martha’s Vineyard was to visit Oak Bluffs, a historically black enclave where director Spike Lee, music executive Sylvia Rhone and Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree have houses, and where generations of blacks have spent summers at the Inkwell, as the beach is nicknamed.
But instead, Obama will be about 12 miles away on a secluded property in Chilmark called the Blue Heron Farm, in the same town as Clinton pal Vernon Jordan, who is known to keep a daily, early morning golf date at the Farm Neck Club in Oak Bluffs.
The sprawling beach-front estate includes a golf tee, an apple orchard, gardens, swimming pool and a small basketball court. The president is paying for his family’s portion of the rental out of his own pocket, with the government picking up Secret Service and staff costs.
During the campaign, Obama visited Martha’s Vineyard for fundraising, and in summer 2004, there was a kind of coming out party for the soon-to-be junior senator from Illinois. Organized by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who owns a home on the island, the event drew a crowd of about 300 A-listers to the summer rental of Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, a friend of Obama’s who once hosted the Clintons at the home in Oak Bluffs.
Obama is expected to see Gates this week as well, friends say – just weeks after Gates attended the “beer summit” at the White House, following Gates’ arrest on disorderly conduct charges at his home by a white Cambridge, Mass., police officer.
Obama came out strongly in defense of Gates, saying police “acted stupidly” in arresting the professor. It was the first racial imbroglio of his term, and set off a firestorm that Obama tried to quiet by bringing Gates and the officer to the White House.
Palling around with Gates could re-open a conversation that Obama doesn’t want to have, some say.
“It would be hard to avoid seeing Skip [Gates] because he is out and about so much . . . but I think it would be a mistake to go over to Skip’s for a beer,” said Melissa Harris Lacewell, a political science professor at Princeton University, who was on the Vineyard last week for an annual conference on race. “He doesn’t want to encourage the sense that he has an intimate relationship to Skip or that he has any lingering responsibility. He [Obama] has done his part in all of this.”
Ogletree, who owns a home in Oak Bluffs, said that there aren’t any plans for a reception for Obama similar to the one in 2004. “People are ready, willing and able to host him in any way, but they want him to get privacy and rest,” said Ogletree, a mentor to Michelle Obama who was Gates’ lawyer after he was arrested.
Harris Lacewell said Americans shouldn’t be surprised the president wants to go to a nice place for vacation, especially a place like Martha’s Vineyard where he has many friends.
“If he wants to hang out where other presidents hang out then he can,” she said. “America is going to have to get over the fact that the guy is an elite. He lives in the White House -- he can vacation in the Vineyard.”
But Obama’s in-box will be stuffed full when he gets back – heading into a critical month of September on health care, but also facing big decisions other parts of his legislative agenda such as cap-and-trade energy legislation, as well as an expected request for more troops from his commander in Afghanistan.
He’ll also face liberals growing anxious that Obama is prepared to sacrifice some of their key priorities on health care and other issues – which would shatter their hopes that Obama would usher in a new progressive era in American politics.
“The President needs to use his vacation not just as a well-deserved break to be with his family but as a time of contemplation, to step back and ask why he ran for President,” Drew Westen, a political psychologist, wrote on POLITICO’s The Arena. “He needs to come out in September with an answer.”