President Obama’s Hawaii Christmas Vacation Dilemma

Amie Parnes
The Hill

President Obama faces a most difficult decision with the payroll tax extension up in the air, and it isn’t whether to compromise with Republicans.

The toughest call for the president this holiday season may be whether to join his family for Christmas in Hawaii or stay in lonely Washington.

The White House won’t say whether the president is heading west for the holidays—or even if he’s making an abbreviated appearance.

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said Tuesday that Obama “intends to stay and work with Congress to ensure that Americans don’t have their taxes go up.”

Even if there’s no ideal time for a presidential vacation, this one comes at a particularly inopportune time. For weeks, Obama has insisted that lawmakers stay in town to pass the tax extension. Otherwise, as he said earlier this month, “we can all spend Christmas here together.”

Now, with the payroll tax extension compromise unsettled, and members of Congress already back at home, does Obama up and leave, too? Or will the president be forced to spend the holidays at an empty White House with the Yule Log on TV listening to Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas?”

“If he stays, he could be seen as the only adult in the room,” said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida. “If he leaves, it could hurt him.”

The question of whether Obama would stay in Washington was posed to Carney a couple of times during Tuesday’s briefing at the White House.

“Are you saying there’s a scenario that’s possible, on December 25th, where the president wakes up and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is on, and he puts on his Christmas sweater in the White House, and he’s all alone and his family is in Hawaii?” Ed Henry, the senior White House correspondent for Fox News wondered.

“I’m reluctant to say where he’s going to be on which day because I don’t want to make this about him,” Carney responded after jokingly asking Henry if he’s available to spend time with the president on Christmas. “It is a very fluid situation. It’s hard to know what tomorrow is going to look like, what the next day is going to look like, as this saga continues.”

It’s unclear how the payroll tax extension fight will play out and whether or not a compromise will be reached before the Christmas weekend.

But if the measure isn’t passed and Obama does go to Hawaii, the imagery of the president in paradise amid the payroll tax extension debate could give Republicans campaign fodder well into the election year, observers say.

“Without any question it will be used against him,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “You can see the Republican ads now about why he’s in Hawaii.”

It’s not as if a Hawaiian Christmas is some exotic vacation for the president. Hawaii is where the president grew up, and he’s visited the state each year for the holidays since his election.

First lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters are already in Hawaii, and staying in Washington would deprive the president of Christmas with his family.

Yet just as when Obama traveled to Martha’s Vineyard this summer in the wake of the nation’s first credit downgrade and a sagging economy, it will be hard for him to escape criticism if he goes to Honolulu without a tax deal.

Some Republicans sound a bit sympathetic, even as they are signal their readiness to pounce.

“He has every right to celebrate the holidays with his family,” said Sean Spicer, the communications director for the Republican National Committee.

But if negotiators are in Washington working on a compromise, “I think that speaks volumes about the lack of leadership. He can’t chide Congress about going on vacation and then go on vacation,” Spicer said.

Tony Fratto, who served as a White House spokesman to George W. Bush, a president frequently criticized by the left for his vacation time, agreed.

“He’s been the one challenging [lawmakers], it’s the standard he’s set for Washington officials so he should stay here and make sure he’s helpful,” Fratto said.

At the same time, Democrats say Obama should make the trip regardless.

Democratic consultant Karen Finney, a columnist for The Hill, said having Obama remain in Washington “symbolically” is not the answer.

“Americans are very clear on who’s raising their taxes,” Finney said. “And it isn’t the president.”

Mike McCurry, who served as White House press secretary under Bill Clinton, said Obama “should go on vacation and Hawaii is perfect.”

“It’s dumb not to give our presidents some down time and he has a long slog ahead next year,” McCurry said. “It also gives his hard-working staff a break and they need it more than he does. I think most Americans would prefer that Obama and Congress take a long vacation wherever and then come back to do some real work.”

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