Nation’s problems haunt Obama’s vacation

His healthcare reform plan is stumbling, the economy is still sputtering and violence is up in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who would not want a break?

President Barack Obama is officially taking one next week when he heads to Martha’s Vineyard. But a long "to do" list — two wars, worldwide recession and a host of legislative battles in store when he gets back, most notably the struggle over reforming the U.S. health system — will make it hard for him to relax and disconnect.

Some critics have questioned whether the president should take a vacation at all, especially given the country’s stubborn economic problems and the vehemence of opposition to the $1 trillion healthcare plan.

Others have slammed him for heading to a Massachusetts resort island known as a haven for the rich and famous.

Supporters counter he will be gone for only a week, will never be far from the issues — and will likely speak out while away.

"The American people are looking to you, Mr. President. They’ll follow your lead," said Robert Guttman, director of the center on politics and foreign relations at Johns Hopkins University. "Why not lead them to the places that need your help the most, instead of to an already financially stable and prosperous New England island? America’s heartland is calling, Mr. President, won’t you answer their call?" he wrote on the liberal Huffington Post website.

The administration says Obama is doing only what other presidents, and many other Americans, do: taking a needed break during a busy year in a place that suits his family. The White House stresses that Obama is footing the bill himself — estimated at $25,000 or more — for the 28-acre (11-hectare) Blue Heron farm he is renting for the August 23-30 trip.

Officials have said Obama planned to spend much of his time relaxing with his family. But he will keep the healthcare message moving while he is away, spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

"Obviously, we’ll have some scheduling updates for you throughout the week on events that may or may not be added on healthcare," Gibbs said this week.

Obama has said he does not think the public will begrudge him the time off with his daughters, despite the bad economy.

Historians note that every U.S. president wants to leave Washington for at least some time in the steamy month of August and say Obama is spending far less time away than most of his recent predecessors, who would leave the White House for weeks in the summer.

The public usually doesn’t balk if the vacations are not too long and if the president is not on holiday when there is a natural disaster. President George W. Bush was often assailed by critics for long stays at his Texas ranch, and never more so than when he was seen as remaining there too long after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.

Presidents never actually leave their jobs, and travel with big entourages of staff, security and the press, noted Stephen Hess, a former presidential adviser now at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"Their ‘vacations’ do not disconnect them with the presidency. Nor, for that matter, do they look an awful lot like our vacations," Hess said.

National leaders feel obliged to take a certain type of holiday — recent Republican presidents such as Bush and Ronald Reagan were regularly photographed at their ranches engaged in such outdoor activities as clearing brush and riding horses.

Unlike their European counterparts, U.S. leaders never go on holiday outside the country.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was criticized for a billionaire-style yacht vacation off Malta in 2007. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who took his family to such distant holiday spots as Egypt and Barbados, was criticized for "cheapening" the office of prime minister by accepting a free vacation at the Florida home of pop star Robin Gibb in 2006.

Commentators say Obama has had a busy first seven months in office, pushing through a massive economic stimulus package, fighting for healthcare and other domestic programs and traveling to Europe, Africa and Mexico, and could use a rest.

"The basic proposition that these are bad times, and shouldn’t the president stay back at the White House, I don’t think is really one that troubles Americans or the world," Hess said.