John Baer: A Vineyard vacation's errant timing

Posted: July 29, 2009

I FIND IT bothersome that President Obama plans to vacation at a costly compound on Martha's Vineyard while the nation's in a deep recession and still sending its sons and daughters off to two foreign wars.

I felt the same about the multiple extended Crawford, Texas, ranch treks former President George W. Bush took while in office, also during wartime.

And I understand modern presidents live under 24/7 media coverage and a heavier scrutiny of lifestyle than their predecessors; and perhaps this is unfair given the responsibility and gravity of the job.

Still, I'm not sure that parents, spouses or siblings of soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq find comfort in the president's vacation plans.

Our wars no longer get much attention. They're old news, accepted as inevitable, background noise against the national psyche. But 77 U.S. and allied troops have died so far this month; 237 so far this year; 5,083 so far since the wars began, in 2001 in Afghanistan, 2003 in Iraq.

Not going to Martha's Vineyard won't change that. But I never liked the idea of a commander-in-chief at play while his troops are at war.

Also, I wonder if folks newly or recently unemployed (the national unemployment rate of 9.5 percent is the highest since 1983, more than a quarter-century ago) forced to cancel family vacations are cheered by Obama headed to The Vineyard.

It's an island off the south coast of Cape Cod, an exclusive summer haven for the rich and famous, including the Clintons, David Letterman, actors such as Meg Ryan and Bill Murray, TV network types such as Mike Wallace and Diane Sawyer - in other words, hardly a slice of Americana.

Those who view Obama as an elitist will have new ammunition.

The Vineyard Gazette reports the president's renting a $20 million, 28.5-acre private compound - Blue Heron Farm - with a swimming pool, private dock, movie theater, b-ball court and golf practice tee, for a reported $35,000 to $50,000 a week, the last week in August.

Many people don't make that in a year. The latest U.S. Census data puts the national median household income at $50,233.

And the rental cost, to be paid out of Obama's pocket (which is good), is no doubt a fraction of the cost for transportation and security for the First Family to and from the island and during their stay.

When I ask the White House press office if staff is accompanying the president and, if so, how many and at what cost, I'm told staffing and security will be handled as they are for all presidents whether renting or going to some place that they own. No details.

Obama merits high marks for his work ethic and aggressive attempts to end our wars, resuscitate our economy, improve health care and enhance our image throughout the world. And one could that argue spending money in this economy helps the economy.

But here's the thing: His candidacy succeeded in large part because of how well he connected with average folks across America, many of them new to politics and the electoral process.

Empathy was and is a watchword for this president. He has a gift of making people believe in him, believe he can change things for the better. A recent USA Today/Gallup Poll shows a majority of Americans see him as empathetic with them.

The poll, released Friday, says 66 percent of voters believe Obama "understands the problems Americans face in their daily lives" and 59 percent believe he shares their values.

These numbers are down six points and five points, respectively, since April. I can't help but wonder whether they drop further after August. *

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/baer.

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