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Should Obama Go on Vacation While Markets are So Skittish?

Mark Trumbull|Christian Science Monitor

President Obama's planned August vacation is still a week away, but a rough ride for global financial markets this week has already sparked discussion about his plans. Specifically, should Mr. Obama ditch his beach plans and focus on the economy?

S President Barack Obama watches his shot as he plays golf on the 9th hole at the Mid Pacific Country Club in Kailua, Hawaii, December 28, 2010.
Saul Loeb | Getty Images

There's something a bit unseemly, after all, about the idea of America's chief executive lounging on Martha's Vineyard when stock markets are tanking – especially when one of the reasons for investor concern is doubt about the ability of political leaders to resolve government-debt challenges in Europe and the US.

At the same time, the media buzz may be premature.

Pressure on the issue eased temporarily, at least, as the US stock market staged a strong upward bounce on Thursday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 423 points to close at 11,143, as investor fears about conditions in Europe – particularly France – eased.

Some political analysts say the idea of cancelling the vacation would be misguided, unless there's something specific the president expects to announce or achieve by staying in Washington.

"If he does decide to change his plans, he needs a definite reason," says Robert Schmuhl, a professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. "Otherwise you're in a situation where the vacation is cancelled, but nothing extraordinary happens."

If markets continue to stabilize, the views of vacation-spoiling pundits could be forgotten by next Thursday. That's when the Obama family expects to head to the Vineyard, the same island where they (and President Clinton before them) have had getaways in the past.

The vacation question came to the forefront Wednesday, when White House press secretary Jay Carney fielded a query on a day of steep stock-market declines. He said Obama won't be walking off the job during his time away. "The presidency travels with you," Mr. Carney said.

A parallel question in recent days has been whether Obama could do anything more about the markets in the near term – perhaps some public statement designed to reassure businesses and investors.

Obama met Wednesday with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, one sign of the president wanting to show he's on the case.

On Monday, the first trading day after Standard & Poor's downgraded its rating of US Treasury debts, Obama made public remarks designed to calm a diving stock market. For whatever reason – perhaps the president's manner, his message, or the absence of concrete new policies – stocks losses worsened as he spoke.

Making more public remarks aimed at financial markets, without a different message, could be counterproductive, Professor Schmuhl says. "He runs a danger of not being listened to when it is important."

Obama's main message earlier this week was that the US economy still maintains bright potential, but that needed fiscal reforms are held up by "a lack of political will in Washington."

On Thursday, during a Michigan appearance focused on clean cars, the president amped up that theme.

"There is nothing wrong with our country. There is something wrong with our politics," Obama said. Seeking to cast himself as aligned with the frustrations of voters outside the nation's capital, he went on to lament "the worst kind of partisanship, the worst kind of gridlock" in recent bipartisan talks over public debt and deficits.

That very gridlock, some observers say, could mean that a vacation is actually the best thing now for Washington politicians. The recent debt-ceiling negotiations tested the patience of everyone involved, from the White House to both parties in Congress. A break now could help both parties clear the mental air for a scheduled second round of fiscal reform talks.

The public won't necessarily view the pols in a worse light.

According to a recent poll, "82 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress doing," says Amy Bree Becker, a political communications expert at Towson University in Maryland. "It's almost like the American people need a vacation from Congress."

Taking vacation time can be a balancing act for any president.

Getting away can be as healthy for them as for anyone else, but sometimes the demands of the job intervene in unexpected ways. For years, presidents have cancelled vacations or cut them short because of events in Washington or beyond. President Bush came off holiday early – although not early enough, in hindsight – after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

"Obama is seen as being much more responsive [than Bush] when something like that happens," Professor Becker says.

The president has also taken some hits for the place he has chosen. Martha's Vineyard is viewed by many as a destination for the elite, perhaps not the ideal public-relations move at a time of high unemployment.

But like Mr. Clinton, Obama doesn't have his own ranch or seashore home for a natural retreat, as the Bushes and President Reagan had.