Vineyard Vacation Sends Wrong Signal

August 26, 2009|By Dan Rodricks

Barack Obama has been in office seven months, and he's off to Martha's Vineyard? Some 70 millions Americans voted for President Obama, and I bet 60 million of them condemned his predecessor for taking too much down time at his ranch in Texas. George W. Bush set a record for presidential vacationing; he was the laziest commander-in-chief ever.

But here's the new man, supposedly with a wholly different work ethic and intellectual rigor, off to a similar start - and in the midst of a recession, with millions of Americans out of work and many millions more so stressed about money, they decided to either stay home or pass vacation up altogether.

I acknowledge the following:

1. Vacation is a good thing; everyone needs it. But Americans do not get enough; we have annually far less vacation than our peers in Europe and Canada. And few Americans get any vacation at all before they've worked on a new job for at least a year.

2. Being president of the United States is the toughest job in the whole wide world.

3. Barack Obama was handed a mountain of problems when he took office, and he's taken on the immense challenge of reforming health care.

But that doesn't mean he gets to take 10 days off after seven months on the job.

Presidencies are built on symbolism. So much of Mr. Obama is new and refreshing; so much looks like more of the same.

Ronald Reagan was once accused of being oblivious to the plight of the unemployed during the depths of the recession that occurred early in his presidency.

Twenty-eight years later, Barack Obama is on Martha's Vineyard while some 9 million Americans are unemployed, with more than half of them without work for at least 27 weeks.

And - Martha's Vineyard? Health care reform has become a heated cultural battle, with defenders of the for-profit insurance industry casting Mr. Obama as a socialist and the Democrats' plan as "socialized medicine." In the midst of this, Mr. Obama takes his family to the Vineyard, with its well-earned reputation as a summer stop for the rich, the famous, the elite and the liberal. The Obamas are staying at a 28-acre farm at an estimated rental cost of $25,000.

Is this change we can believe in?

I know: The man works hard, he's brilliant, earnest and engaged. He's not lazy like George W. Bush was, so his vacation is well-deserved.

But let me point out a couple of things to those who think Barack Obama has worked up a sweat during his first seven months: He pretty much passed the buck on health care to Congress and allowed his administration's message on the need for reform - specifically, the need for a public option in health insurance plans - to become muddled. He allowed the right wing to steal the show and infest the debate with "death panel" myths and other lies. The discipline of message that helped Mr. Obama win election has been sorely lacking in the campaign to resolve the nation's costly health care crisis.

Plus, The New York Times reported Monday that Mr. Obama has filled less than half of the more than 500 senior administration positions requiring Senate confirmation. Seven months into his presidency, the president has neither an assistant treasury secretary for financial markets nor his own inspector general. He has not appointed his own director of the Transportation Security Administration, the Customs and Border Protection agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He doesn't have an intelligence chief at the Department of Homeland Security, and there's still a vacancy at the top of the Agency for International Development.

Plus, there's the escalating war in Afghanistan, and the Obama administration still does not have an Army secretary. Also missing, according to the Times: the top civilian in charge of military readiness at the Pentagon.

Sorry, but you don't get to put in for vacation with that much work unfinished, and a major national issue to settle, and two wars, and a recession with long-term unemployment. Not if, from the start, you want people to believe you really represent change.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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