Obama vacationing, but keeping busy

The health care debate drags on 24/7. The economy sputters its way back from recession. Wars rage in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Still, a president's got to kick back sometime. Golf, anyone? Or boccie?

After one of the most exhausting opening acts in White House history, President Obama — by all appearances, anyway — is taking a week off from the perils of the presidency here on Martha's Vineyard.

He's golfing, playing tennis, tackling a hefty reading list and otherwise doing what most Americans do on vacation: hanging out.

Despite his admonition to news reporters to "relax," however, Obama didn't wait 48 hours before interrupting his vacation Tuesday to announce he is renominating Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve Board chairman. On Monday, the White House announced the creation of a new unit to supervise terrorist interrogations, and a presidential council warned that the swine flu virus could infect half the country later this year.

"I apologize for interrupting the relaxing that I told all of you to do," Obama said in his brief appearance with Bernanke, the pair dressed casually in open shirts and jackets. A half-hour later, the president was golfing.

Presidential vacations never happen in a vacuum. George W. Bush's trip to his Crawford, Texas, ranch in 2005 was interrupted by Iraq war protesters and Hurricane Katrina. Bill Clinton's trip here in 1998 came hours after he confessed to a relationship with Monica Lewinsky. George H.W. Bush returned to Washington from his Kennebunkport, Maine, compound in 1990 because of the Persian Gulf crisis.

Obama's trip comes at a time when his hope of overhauling the nation's health care system hangs in the balance. Influential Republicans in Congress, such as Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have called for a more limited fix. Liberal groups such as MoveOn.org are trying to stop the White House from giving up on a "public option," a government-run health plan that would compete with those of private insurers.

In a sign that the debate is shadowing Obama even in liberal Massachusetts, a full-page ad in Friday's Vineyard Gazette greeted him with the warning: "Health care legislation without a public option is not health care reform." It was paid for by the Martha's Vineyard Ad-Hoc Coalition for Genuine Health Care Reform.

So is this a good time for Obama to be teeing it up? Vineyard residents and summer visitors think so. Some historians think not. White House aides past and present say it's a false choice.

"A president is never, ever, ever on vacation," says Dana Perino, George W. Bush's last press secretary. "The weight of the office is on their shoulders at all times."

During his first briefing at the Oak Bluffs elementary school that is housing the press corps, White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton handled queries about terrorism, Afghanistan troop levels, the health care overhaul and the pace of administration appointments. And golf.

To hear Burton tell it, success on Obama's lengthy agenda is directly linked to his ability to recharge his batteries here for the first time in seven months, so that he and his team are "ready for the final push for the year."

Obama's vacation will be short. Most presidents have taken more than a week off, usually in August — a tradition dating to when Washington, D.C., lacked air-conditioning.

Even so, some analysts question both the timing and location of Obama's break.

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