Thursday, July 09, 2009

An Unfortunate Vacation

It’s interesting how history moves in cycles.

For eight years, George W. Bush was hailed by conservatives as the greatest president who ever lived, and reviled as the Antichrist by die-hard liberals. In November, America elected Barack Obama…who is hailed by die-hard liberals as the greatest president who ever lived and reviled as the Antichrist by die-hard conservatives.

Disclaimer: I think George W. Bush was an appallingly bad president in many ways; last November I voted for Barack Obama mostly because he wasn't a Republican, and I think the jury is still out on his performance.

But the jury is grumbling with discontent.

My old friend Debbie, who is not particularly fond of the current president, forwarded me an e-mail yesterday with the intriguing subject line, “This oughta frost your cookies!” It turned out to be a stinging rebuke of Mr Obama for conspicuous waste of money and resources by taking his family along on his recent European trip, complete with several photos and descriptions of shopping and sightseeing trips taken by his family in Paris and London after Mr Obama had already returned to Washington.

I replied to Debbie that, in my humble opinion, the e-mail wasn’t totally fair, as presidents of both parties have a long history of taking their families along on state visits. Traffic jams and inconvenience for the masses are par for the course when presidents and their families travel (and even when they stay home, as those of us who live in Disneyland-on-the-Potomac well know) – for, sadly, we live in a dangerous world in which major disruptions of daily life are necessary to protect our leaders and their loved ones from those who would rather cast a 9mm ballot than a paper one.

Debbie, in turn, wrote (and I trust she’ll forgive me for quoting her), “You're right, other 1st ladies may have done this, doesn't make it right does it? Their husbands did not run on a ticket of "changing how things are done in Washington" AND the country was not in an economic crisis, according to our VP who said they underestimated the problems. With so many families unable to shop like they used to, this family really upgraded their shopping's so ‘in your face’.” She went on to lambaste House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s routine use of expensive Air Force aircraft to fly back and forth to California on weekends, and finished up with this: “It wouldn't irritate me so much except I have several friends who are either laid off, or their hours have been cut and can barely make ends meet. Their young children need new clothes and would love to splurge on a trip to McDonalds. The first family should be leading by example not flaunting the fact that they are capable of squandering the working poor's money.”

After I extinguished the flames coming out of my monitor, I thought more about the Obama family vacation, and about what Debbie had written.

As I told her, I still don’t completely agree with the original savaging of the First Family’s trip. Like it or not, the First Lady and the members of the president’s family play an important part in what we sometimes call “public diplomacy” – putting a human face on an America the rest of the world often sees only through the prism of policies and actions that in the recent past have shown an in-your-face disrespect for the interests, feelings, and opinions of other nations. To the extent that people around the world see Americans as a family on vacation, shopping and eating fish and chips in a London pub, rather than soldiers fighting in other lands, I think it’s a good thing.

That said, of course, the President and his family also need to set an example. Debbie is right: at a time when the economy is in the toilet, millions are out of work, and millions more have been ruined by the reckless greed of the financial management industry, this vacation was at the very least ill-timed, and sends a very unfortunate message to the American people. If the President wants to take the CEOs of the big auto companies to task for flying in expensive corporate jets while they're laying off tens of thousands of workers, he ought to be willing to forego taxpayer funding of aircraft to fly his family (and their security detail, and their armored limousines, etc, etc) on the sort of vacation that the average working American can only dream about. You can read about the vacation, and the estimates of its cost by the Congressional Research Service (the White House wouldn't comment) here.

Presidents must set an example. The example set by Mr Bush was unfortunate. Mr Obama must do better. This wasn't the way to do it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Debbie said...

No problem quoting me Bilbo. But I resent being called "old". :)

bandit said...

Mr. O. is coming to St. Louis to throw out the first pitch of the All Star game. I don't know if he invited himself or not. It sounds like he did. We have not had the game here since 1966 and many of us feel him being here is a disruption of the celebration. Since it was announced that he would be here, the rules have changed i.e. arrival times, road blocks, what to bring or not to bring, etc. I wish he would stay home to save the travel money, eliminate the headaches, and let the city celebrate this great event.

John said...

A little esrly to blast the Obama's about taking the family along while the President is working or extending days as vacation.

You may remember that the senior Bush took a whopping 543 days of vacation in his four year term and the younger Bush set an all time record of 977 days of vacation during his eight years in office. That's 1520 days in 12 years for the last two Republican Presidents (just over 1 day off for every 2 days worked) vs 231 days in the four Carter years (79 days) and eight Clinton years (152 days) combined.

Obama's been in office for almost six months and dealing with a lot of stuff(some left over from the previous administration). A few days with his family is not out of line.

Debbie said...

Been thinking about this some more...and maybe the message sent should come from us, not the First Family or the Speaker of the House or other DC Royalty with expensive tastes and lifestyles and just don't "feel our pain" of living within budget constraints. My dad was like Ronald Reagan...his points were made directly and in simple terms that all could understand. The one I liked the least but was most effective, and the one that we should be sending to our leaders is "As long as I am paying the bills around here, you will do as you're told!"

Leslie David said...

Yes it would be nice if the Obamas could travel like us little people but they can't, specifically because of the reason you mentioned---people who like to make their point with a 9 mm. It seems to me that Obama hasn't made nearly as many trips as Bush did, and why shouldn't the girls go along--it's their summer vacation, and this trip was a working trip not a vacation. Seems that the Republicans didn't cry about the multitude of trips Bush made to Crawford on our dime, nor the vast number of vacation days he took. The Republicans had 8 years to trash this country and Obama has been in office, what, 6 months and he's trying to clean up their mess, which means repairing the damage that Bush did to our reputation abroad. All the Republicans have done is whine and pitch an extended temper tantrum over anything that Obama has done since January. The difference between Democrats and Republicans--Democrats spend money to help people less fortunate than themselves, Republicans spend money to help corporations screw people less fortunate than themselves. I'm a liberal and proud of it, in fact I think I'll go to a woman's reproductive health center which does more than abortions and work as an escort to help people making a decision which is none of my business access the property without being harassed.

Bilbo said...

Debbie - I meant to say, "long-time, glamorous."

Bandit - perhaps you can work a deal...keep the ball and throw out the pres?

John - I think the real issue here that it wasn't a family vacation per se - Mr Obama had already gone back to Washington, which meant that the cost to fly his family separately was much more than had they all gone together.

Debbie (again?) - Didn't George Bush the Elder help torpedo his reelection chances when he went shopping and didn't understand what a price scanner was?

Leslie - don't keep it all bottled up, now...tell us how you really feel...

Mike said...

Wow, I'm impressed. A real live political discussion. And nobody's calling each other dirt bags! That's no fun!

Having worked for the phone company I got to be a part of a lot of presidential visits to St. Louis. This isn't the first, it won't be the last, and they're all a pain for the people have to work with a secret service agent following you around.

Bilbo said...

Mike - I got only high-class online friends. Name-callers are not welcome. And someday I'll tell you my story about President Ford's visit to Barksdale AFB while I was one experience with the hyperactivity that goes with a presidential visit.

vw - vershe: poetry written by a drunk.

SusieQ said...

I have nothing against Obama personally. I think he is charming with a darling family. But....during hard economic times like the ones we are experiencing now with people losing their jobs and suffering financially in other ways, the President should be sending a message of moderation to the citizens of this country not one of self-serving extravagance. This is not the appropriate time for the President to spend hard earned tax dollars on family vacations in Europe.

Obama should have waited till his stimulus package did some noticeable good which I understand it hasn't yet..but then that's Dubya's fault. Without question, everything is Dubya's fault.

I had no idea someone was keeping track of the number of vacation days various presidents have taken while in office. Just what does that tell us? Not much. We know, or should know, that all along all presidents have taken a certain number of genuine "working vacations"...except, of course, for Dubya.

allenwoodhaven said...

I think that all presidents are/should be on call all the time and, given the technology that exists today, can really work from anywhere. The main point is that they should be engaged in solving the nation's problems wherever they are. Bush's problem is the perception (if not the reality) that he was disengaged, that he'd rather have been fishing or clearing brush on his ranch than being President. Remember his slow reaction to Katrina? The reality was that he'd have gotten in the way if he went to the area right away but the perception became that he didn't care. I disagreed with almost all of his policies, but I'm sure he cared; the victims were his fellow citizens after all.

As far as the Obama family's vacation, I think that they should have gone. It was better for the world's perception (as mentioned above), better for Obama himself (no doubt a comfort to have his loved ones near), and better for his family (a marvelous experience for his children and wife). His plane was going anyway and if his family came back later, I wouldn't be surprised if they bore at least some of that cost. If not, I still think it was worth the cost to the taxpayers. Yes, people are hurting in America, but does that mean the President and family should live like paupers and hermits? I don't think so and I think/hope most people would agree.

As far as this discussion goes, how refreshing to have opinions aired without invective! Way to go Bilbo!

Debbie said...

Allen...those little girls would have had as much fun or more spending a week in Disney World at a fraction of the cost. Separate planes, separate security details in a foreign country when so many taxpayers are worried about their retirement funds, their jobs and taking care of their own. Nothing has changed in Washington except we are way more deeper in debt and all of the money spent has done nothing to help the rapidly worsening economy. Counties that voted for this President are getting double stimulus money than those that went Republican, and they are spending the money on regular budget items like paving roads not providing new jobs with bridge construction or other projects...guess we have secured votes for the next election not private sector jobs with our tax dollars.

allenwoodhaven said...

Debbie...While it's true that Disney World has EPCOT, which mimics part of Europe, it is not the same as being in Europe. I think that the experience was a good one for the Obama kids (as it would be for anyone). Positive experiences aren't just for fun, they are also to expand one's world. I think that children in The White House, whether Democrat or Republican, deserve this and the world benefits from these perceptions of the American family.

As far as the debt and the economy go, these problems didn't start with this president and I think what he has done/tried to do has helped. I've read (but cannot cite what news sources off the top of my head)that without the actions taken, things would be far worse than they are. Do things need to get better? Of course. Will things be fixed as quickly as we'd like? No, but it took Bush and Congress years to turn a surplus into a deficit and it will take time to dig us out.