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.

"It's not the best time to walk away," says Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College in Minnesota. "It's better to take vacations in a quiet August. This is not a quiet August."

"Martha's Vineyard doesn't need any more local civic pride. It's overflowing with it," says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. "When the economy's this bad, presidents should be vacationing in the states that need it the most. We've got some beautiful islands where I'm from in Ohio."

Fried clams and 'chowdah'

Presidents as far back as Ulysses Grant have come here to vacation, or fish for stripers and blues off the picturesque coast.

The most recent was Clinton, who adopted the Vineyard as his preferred summer spot in seven of his eight White House years.

Obama has come here several times. One of his top advisers, Valerie Jarrett, is a regular on the island. For generations, Oak Bluffs has been a vacation spot for thousands of affluent African Americans. Obama's friends include Vineyard regulars and Harvard professors Charles Ogletree and Henry Gates, who was arrested at his home in July after a confrontation with a white police officer, then later shared a beer with Obama and the officer at the White House.

The Vineyard also is friendly territory for Obama, who won nearly 75% of the vote here in 2008. In Chilmark, one of six island towns, he got 590 votes to 123 for John McCain.

For this vacation, Obama has chosen tranquility. Blue Heron Farm, owned by William and Mollie Van Devender of Jackson, Miss., is a 28-acre estate that rents for $35,000 or more a week with a pool, tennis court, golf hole and bocce ball court. Obama is paying his family's share of the cost, the White House says.

William Van Devender is an investor, real estate developer and venture capitalist focused on timber lands and wireless communications.

The Van Devenders are active Republicans who contributed $2,300 first to primary contender Fred Thompson and then to nominee McCain last year. They purchased the farm for $20.35 million in 2005.

Obama's temporary home is near the middle of the 23-mile Vineyard, away from its bustling east end and bucolic west end.

It's a half-mile from Alley's General Store in West Tisbury, which celebrated its 150th anniversary last year — and where the only sign of the presidential visit is a box of Obama trading cards on the counter and a group of curious onlookers on the front porch.

In Chilmark (year-round population: 843), where long driveways hide many properties, the median value of a home in 2007 was more than $1.5 million. Local real estate ads advertise 6.9 acres on Squibnocket Pond for $9.75 million and a building lot with beach access for $4.2 million.

Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven each has its own golf course. Menemsha's charter fishing captains all but guarantee ample quantities of striped bass and bluefish. Chilmark has spectacular beaches and ponds. Aquinnah has a Native American tribe and red cliffs.

It's anyone's guess where and when the Obamas will appear from their hideaway, conspicuously marked by about a dozen "No Parking" signs that state police placed on both sides of South Road. Even The Bite, a 14-by-14-foot clam shack on the dead-end Basin Road that leads to Menemsha Beach's famous sunsets, was alerted by the Secret Service for a possible Obama visit.

"We're going to sell him fried clams and 'chowdah,' " vows Michael Flynn, the 50-year-old manager, as a half-dozen employees prepare New England delicacies inside the cramped quarters. "We even have fresh water for Bo," the Obamas' dog, for whom Oak Bluffs threw a dog parade Sunday night.

T-shirts and tacos

At Alley's, a quintessential general store billing itself as "Dealers in Almost Everything," manager Rhonda Backus is hoping for an influx of curious day-trippers as well as a visit by the president.

It won't take her a second to whip up a basket of local produce and other items, including Chilmark chocolate. But she promises no paparazzi-style hubbub.

"That's not what we're all about here," Backus says.

Barbara Phillips, manning the cash register at the Black Dog Home Store across from Edgartown's waterfront, says islanders "might gawk" at the Obamas, "but they won't mob them. I think that's why a lot of people come here — because their privacy is respected."

Indeed, the list of celebrities who have lived or vacationed here is long: James Taylor, Carly Simon, Billy Joel, Oprah Winfrey, Vernon Jordan, Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer. Walter Cronkite adored the place. John Belushi bought Robert McNamara's house on Lucy Vincent Beach and is buried across the street.

None of them — not even Clinton, who galloped publicly across the Vineyard during his stays here — attracted the build-up accorded the first African-American president, locals say. There are Obama cookies, Obama ales, Obamaritas and Barack-O-Tacos in Oak Bluffs.

Edgartown's Shirt Tales has reordered three types of Obama T-shirts — 1,000 of them.

At Scrimshaw Gallery, there's an oil-on-canvas painting of a beach-walking Obama, Malia and Sasha in tow. Enchanted Chocolates is selling bags of "Yes We Candy." Mad Martha's created a coffee ice cream with macadamia nuts and a caramel swirl for the occasion and named it "Barack My World."

The first lady also is in demand. Every day at Saffron boutique, owner Patty Culkins displays a different outfit alongside a sign that reads, "What Would Michelle Do?" The choices: cocktails at 5, shopping, ladies' tea — and clamming. A green sheath dress that reminded Culkins of the first lady's inaugural outfit sold on Saturday.

Some of the island's 15,000 year-round residents aren't happy about the visit. Lobsterman Everett Poole, 79, who ran a Menemsha fish market for 50 years and now manages the Chilmark Chandlery supply shop, worries about traffic and commotion.

"I wish he'd gone somewhere else," says Poole, puffing on his pipe amid the lobster pots. "We've got too many damn people here now."

Key West to Kennebunkport

Obama's choice of isolation and exercise isn't unusual as presidential vacations go. Since George Washington rode horses, every president has done what suited them best.

Franklin Roosevelt had his yacht. Harry Truman had his Southern White House in Key West, Fla. Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush had their Texas ranches, Ronald Reagan his California version. Richard Nixon retreated to San Clemente, Calif., or Key Biscayne, Fla.

For many presidents, returning to familiar turf "borders on the spiritual," says presidential historian Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "It's a renewal."

Surrounded by natural beauty, presidents past would fish or golf or sail. Nixon walked the beach in wing-tipped shoes. Reagan built fences from telephone poles. Dwight Eisenhower painted. Truman played poker.

Theodore Roosevelt "would disappear for months on end into the wild" to hunt, says Brinkley, author of a new book on the 26th president.

"Presidents are very limited. If they're going to take a real vacation, they have to be isolated," says George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. "You can't go to the beach. You can't do normal sightseeing."

And you can't escape the perils of the presidency — even on a peaceful little island off the coast of Massachusetts.

"Things go bump in the night," Perino says, "no matter where the president is."