The next time Barack Obama–or any President–goes on vacation, the inevitable critics might want to think twice and consider thanking him instead.
Leave aside the illogic of saying you think the President is doing such a lousy job that he should stick around and do more of it. Or the irony, if you’re Newt Gingrich, of demanding that Obama cancel his vacation as you head off to campaign in Hawaii. Complaints from candidates about how the President should be at his desk, not at the beach, betray an ignorance of the job they are competing for. The better charge, if they aim to show their fitness for the office, is not that Obama takes too much vacation but too little.
No candidate can truly know what the presidency does to you. But Presidents do, which is one reason they tend to give each other the same advice when one hands over power to another: Be sure to rest. Use Camp David. Pace yourself. When Eisenhower was ridiculed for playing so much golf, Truman–no friend of Ike’s at the time–came to his defense: “I am sure that the problems of the presidency follow him around the golf course … and anywhere else he may go.” After the harrowingly close 1960 election, Nixon and Kennedy met in Key Biscayne, Fla., to declare a cease-fire. They talked policy, personnel, how Nixon managed to win Ohio. But then Nixon made an unsolicited promise: I may criticize your policies, he told Kennedy, but “of one thing I can assure you: I shall never join in any criticism of you, expressed or implied, for taking time off for relaxation. There is nothing more important than that a President be physically, mentally and emotionally in the best possible shape to confront the immensely difficult decisions he has to make.”
At the time, Kennedy had no clue. He was still more than a month from taking office. By the time he had lived through the Bay of Pigs disaster, and faced the challenge of sending men into battle and the agony of a mission gone bad, he had a clearer idea of the toll of the office. He made his maiden helicopter trip to Camp David in order to meet with Eisenhower and talk through what had happened.
“No one knows how tough this job is until he has been in it a few months,” Kennedy admitted.
“Mr. President,” Eisenhower replied, “if you will forgive me, I think I mentioned that to you three months ago.”
Each President has his learning curve. Nixon’s aides debated how to get him to take time off, since he was a man of few hobbies, fewer good friends and no great need to clear brush, tend a garden or go sailing. Clinton had to be practically dragged out of the White House his first summer in office. Carter took the least time off of any of them–79 days. Those who retreated to vacation homes felt obliged to rename them the Little White House or the Western White House to show that, as Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney reminded reporters, “the presidency travels with you.”
That’s too bad. Researchers have known forever that rest and play and change of focus are essential to creativity and mental health, things we presumably want more of in our Presidents–and ourselves. We need Presidents to vacate to show us how it’s done. These days, those who are lucky enough to have jobs tend to be so anxious about the economy that taking time off just adds more anxiety: What if, while you’re gone, your substitute proves superior–better, faster, stronger or cheaper than you? An Adweek/Harris poll found that of the 40% of Americans taking a vacation this summer, 81% would take their gizmos and gadgets, including half who pack their laptop along with the sunscreen and flip-flops. One colleague told me, apologetically, that there would be three days during her vacation when she’d be out of cell range. I told her that as far as I was concerned, she should consider the whole time out of range.
I wish we could say the same to world leaders. Russia’s Vladimir Putin appears to view vacations as occasions to remove his shirt and prove he’s a strong leader. British Prime Minister David Cameron cut short his vacation in Italy to deal with the riots back home, while France’s Nicolas Sarkozy returned early from the Mediterranean to address the financial crisis. While that may be their patriotic duty, it comes at a price. Obama has already canceled two vacations this year. I hope he considers taking Thanksgiving in Hawaii and Christmas at Camp David. That too would be showing leadership–since the wise use of resources begins at home.
This article was originally published Sept. 05, 2011.