President Obama plays a round of golf in Tisbury, Mass., on Martha's… (CJ Gunther, European Pressphoto…)
Reporting from Vineyard Haven, Mass. — As the president tried to concentrate on his golf swing Wednesday, fierce fighting continued in Libya, officials surveyed damage from a magnitude 5.8 earthquake and Hurricane Irene hurtled toward the East Coast. The vacationing leader of the free world just can't catch a break.
After a tumultuous year with a whipsawing stock market and U.S. unemployment hovering above 9%, President Obama and his family had tried to slip away for a 10-day retreat to Martha's Vineyard, returning to Blue Heron Farm, their secluded hideaway in Chilmark.
But even before he left Washington, Obama was under fire from congressional Republicans and would-be 2012 challengers, who feigned shock that he wouldn't cancel his vacation in the midst of international and economic turmoil.
Even on an island outpost, this has been an unquestionably busy week for the administration. Although White House spokesman Josh Earnest dismissed Republican criticism as "cable chatter," Obama's aides have taken pains to show that the president has been busy and engaged as one calamity rolled in after the next.
As he has at every press gaggle this week, Earnest began the White House news conference Wednesday listing the many briefings the president had received on Libya, Hurricane Irene and the global markets.
The first Vineyard photo released by the White House last week showed the president, hands clasped and brow furrowed, being briefed by his top counter-terrorism advisor on overnight developments in Libya and other national security issues.
"This is a job that he's responsible for doing wherever he is, whether he's sitting in the Oval Office or whether he's caught on the golf course when an emerging action takes place," Earnest said Wednesday.
With this week's interruptions, Obama follows a long line of presidents who found it difficult to escape the job while on vacation. In 1998, President Clinton ordered secret cruise missile strikes targeting Osama bin Laden in Sudan and Afghanistan during his August vacation at the Vineyard. President George W. Bush broke off his monthlong retreat to Crawford, Texas, in 2005 to return to Washington to oversee the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Obama seems to have had a run of bad luck when it comes to vacations. Days after the first family traveled to Hawaii for Christmas in 2009, the so-called Christmas Day bomber allegedly tried to bring down an airliner with explosives sewn into his underwear. During Obama's summer vacation that August, he had left the Vineyard to attend the funeral of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Only last summer's holiday in Martha's Vineyard was relatively uneventful.
In the midst of the breaking news this week, the president found time to leave Blue Heron Farm and visit some of the first family's favorite island haunts.
On his first full day in the Vineyard, Obama took his daughters to Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven. Out of the watchful eye of the press corps, he dined at sunset with his wife at the Beach Plum Inn, which overlooks the fishing village of Menemsha. And he attended two cocktail parties over the weekend — one at the Oak Bluffs home of Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree and another at the mansion of Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts.
The family also spent several hours on different days at a secluded private beach on the south side of the island and biked as a foursome through the Vineyard's Manuel F. Correllus State Forest this week.
On his own, the president has headed to the links four times with two of his regular golfing buddies. On Tuesday, Obama arrived at the Farm Neck Golf Club shortly before the earthquake shook the East Coast.
With less idyllic weather headed this way because of Hurricane Irene, the president made another golf outing Wednesday. This time — as evacuations began on the North Carolina barrier island of Ocracoke — he chose a shorter, nine-hole course.
But Earnest, the White House spokesman, said he was not aware of any internal discussions about cutting the president's vacation short. At least not yet.