President Barack Obama left town last week for the traditional presidential summer vacation, which gave a green light to the equally traditional carping about presidential vacations. Critics of Obama toted up his vacation time, his weekend rounds of golf, and his ever-increasing hours on the fundraising trail to paint him as disconnected and disinterested in his job. Defenders of the president noted, correctly, that most of the people on Capitol Hill — Republicans and Democrats alike — have already left for their home districts. Most will do some campaigning and fundraising, while many will also spend time with their families in an attempt to escape the pressure cooker of Washington, D.C. The critics and the shruggers usually switch roles when the partisan affiliation of the commander in chief changes.
Normally, I'd count myself among the shruggers. Presidents have taken August vacations for decades, if not longer. Most congregate far from the hoi polloi when they do. George H.W. Bush spent his vacation time at the family retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine, while his son and his predecessor Ronald Reagan relaxed at their respective ranches. Jimmy Carter had the peanut farm. FDR had Campobello and the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia — even during World War II, where he died of a cerebral hemorrhage while trying to regain his health.
Moreover, there are fewer reasons now to upend the tradition than there were in FDR's time. Communications during World War II had nowhere near the portability and ubiquity of the digital age. Neither did travel; it took FDR a full day to get to Warm Springs by train, which is why he spent two or three weeks there whenever he did manage to get away. At that time, relocating the center of communications to a wartime president's vacation home could not have been an easy or inexpensive feat, but if any major objections to the practice arose at the time, those have not come down to us through the decades.
Some of the sniping about presidential vacations arises out of pure partisan point-scoring. It grows more intense, however, when legitimate crises arise, or when the popular view of a president puts little confidence in his ability to lead. Bush gave up presidential golf in 2003 after getting ripped over how it looked while ordering troops into battle in the early months of the Iraq War. The criticism of his summers at the Texas ranch grew especially bitter after Hurricane Katrina and the descent of Iraq into civil war in 2006. (Bush defended Obama's penchant for golf last September, arguing that the time with friends allowed for an important release from the "pressures of the job.")
At the moment, this is Obama's problem — and perhaps the one good reason that the president should have passed on this vacation. Poll after poll shows a sharp decline in both job approval and estimation of Obama's leadership, which accelerated after his retreat from the "red line" he drew over the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
In this month's Associated Press poll, Obama scored poorly overall with a 40 percent approval/59 percent disapproval, the highest level of disapproval yet. But he suffered from even worse ratings on the foreign policy crises that have erupted recently. The three hot spots on the radar are disasters for Obama's credibility as commander in chief. On Gaza, 60 percent disapprove of his handling of the crisis, while 57 percent disapprove of his approach to Ukraine and Iraq.
Obama has particular vulnerability on Iraq. Three years ago, he proudly declared that he had kept his promise to get all troops out of the country, and two years ago campaigned on the fact that Mitt Romney would have kept U.S. troops there had he been president. In January of this year, Obama infamously dismissed ISIS as "a jayvee team" to al Qaeda, and shrugged them off as "jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes."
Meanwhile, two weeks ago, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency told an audience that the U.S. is less safe than it was "several years ago" and that rather than being on the run, the al Qaeda ideology "sadly feels like it's exponentially grown" during that time.
On Saturday, with Marine One in the background, standing by to whisk him away to Martha's Vineyard, Obama announced that he had ordered the U.S. military to conduct airstrikes on ISIS to prevent a potential genocide. He then proceeded to claim that removing all troops from Iraq wasn't his decision, but was a situation forced on him by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Needless to say, the dramatic cognitive disconnects in Obama's narrative don't do much to maintain even the current low confidence in his leadership, let alone repair the damage. While Obama can certainly run the American response from his vacation retreat to the genocide unfolding in real time, his insistence on doing so reinforces the conclusion that the president isn't taking the ISIS threat seriously.
Most Americans would expect that the sudden epiphany about the genocidal threat posed by ISIS would have a president working overtime. This time, at least, the need to boost confidence in the president's leadership should have outweighed his legitimate need for some downtime outside the Beltway bubble.