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Obama and family return to Martha's Vineyard for summer vacation

The president and First Lady Michelle Obama keep a busy social schedule with friends but don't mix much with the residents and tourists on Martha's Vineyard.

August 17, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey
  • President Obama and daughter Malia ride bikes Friday during their family vacation on Martha's Vineyard. They head home Sunday.
President Obama and daughter Malia ride bikes Friday during their family… (Rick Friedman / Pool )

EDGARTOWN, Mass. — As the White House announced an upcoming presidential bus tour to focus on a middle-class agenda, President Obama was golfing at a private club on Martha's Vineyard. When Obama wanted to show he was engaged on the deepening political crisis in Egypt, he delivered a statement from the driveway of his rented estate — then zipped off for another nine holes.

After skipping his summer vacation last year during the scrutiny of the campaign, a reelected Obama embraced his week of leisure with little worry about the inevitable political swipes at a vacationing president or the collision of images Washington calls "optics."

That meant repeated rounds of golf, sometimes with well-heeled Wall Street-types, once with actor Larry David. It meant dinners out at some of the best restaurants. It meant hanging out with friends and donors who flee to picturesque gray-shingled homes here in August to relish the views, dunes and sweet, salty air of the Atlantic.

It also meant testing this low-key island's reputation as a forgiving haven for the famous. The first family's visit forced the closure of a main road, irking some locals and business owners.

The president and First Lady Michelle Obama were without their daughters, Malia and Sasha, for half of their eight-day break on Martha's Vineyard, which ends Sunday. Until the girls arrived Thursday, the Obamas kept a busy social schedule with friends, including senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and national security advisor Susan Rice. Obama visited the home of Democratic mega-donor and Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts and golfed with Wall Street consultant Robert Wolf.

The social scene is part of what draws the president back to this island retreat that has a history of attracting all types — the wealthy, the reclusive, intellectuals, preppy yachters, families and fishermen. Obama came here after delivering the 2004 convention speech that put him on the political map. He returned in 2007, marveling, "I can wander around in shorts and not shave in the morning, and no one talks about it."

His subsequent visits in the first three years of his presidency and again this year included no public stubble or wandering, of course. The Obamas keep a low profile and usually rent an out-of-the-way home.

This year's choice of residence raised more attention. The modern estate owned by Chicago investor David Schulte is close to a main artery that crosses the island, leading the Secret Service to close a section during one of the busiest weeks of the summer.

The closure, along with some tighter security measures, was particularly disruptive last week, when a county fair, regatta and fireworks display drew larger crowds.

"It's a nightmare," said rental agent Deborah Eggers, who handles hundreds of rentals each summer. Eggers said she wondered if in the age of terrorism presidents should stay in remote places. "He's got other places to go. There's Camp David. He could get himself a ranch in Montana. People have nice vacations in Montana, right?"

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president and first lady were mindful of how their security requirements can affect others. "But, frankly, the president is hopeful that everybody has just as much fun as he does on the island this week," he said.

For the most part, islanders were ensconced in their own late-summer escapes and not terribly exercised about the Very Important Vacationer. Bicyclists inched over just slightly to let the motorcade pass. Golfers at the Farm Neck Golf Club waited patiently as Secret Service agents searched the trunks of their luxury cars. Small crowds gathered outside while the Obamas dined, waiting, often in vain, for a glimpse of the president, who did not mix much with the island's residents and tourists.

The men and women of the Polar Bear Club in Oak Bluffs, a group of early-morning swimmers, were not expecting the first lady to accept their invitation to join them. But they would love a chance to show her the series of water aerobics they call "Michelle's Arms," named after the first lady's toned biceps. "Because we cherish the time with our families, we understand if she can't come," Caroline Hunter said. "I can't even imagine the pressure cooker of their life."

The first lady spent much of her time on the island visiting with friends and playing tennis.

The deep blue enclave is accustomed to political types, mostly Democrats in recent years, taking refuge from the sticky swamp of Washington in August.

Several presidents have taken sanctuary here, including John F. Kennedy, who stopped regularly for day trips and sailing. That said, he was clearly "a Hyannis guy," said Skip Finley, a columnist for the Martha's Vineyard Gazette, making a key distinction between the Vineyard's preferred down-home identity compared with its tonier neighbor on Cape Cod, the site of the Kennedy family compound.

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