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Crises interrupt, but don’t spoil Obama’s vacation

Senior advisers keep president current on matters

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post / January 2, 2010

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KAILUA, Hawaii - Before heading to a Wednesday luau, President Obama did something much more somber, his aides said: He called CIA director Leon Panetta to discuss the deaths of seven agency officers in a suicide attack in Afghanistan.

On Thursday morning, before taking his family to a private viewing of the movie “Avatar 3-D,’’ Obama called his counterterrorism and homeland security advisers for updates on an attempted airline attack a week earlier. And on New Year’s Eve, after more than five hours of golf, the president “cleared the decks’’ for work, aides said - sequestering himself for several hours to study some preliminary assessments of intelligence failures in the airline case.

Senior administration officials said that Obama at no point considered cutting short his trip to attend to matters on the mainland, and they could not deny that Obama still had plenty of fun despite the unexpected crises. He played golf and basketball, went snorkeling and to the gym, and ate at his favorite Honolulu restaurant. His wife and children went to the beach, and his entire family spent time with both a group of Chicago friends who traveled to Hawaii with them and local Oahu residents who have known Obama since childhood.

But a normal vacation this was not.

After an early wave of criticism for the president’s decision to not comment for three full days on the attempted Christmas attack, his advisers spent the rest of the trip pursuing two competing goals: shielding the president from further scrutiny so he could enjoy his time off while proving that he was fully engaged in national affairs. During Obama’s Thursday golf outing, his advisers released an official photograph made earlier in the day during his national security call, holding a phone with a concerned look on his face. Advisers described him as having achieved the ultimate work-life balance, shifting from national security commander to outdoor sportsman every day, all while catching up with some of his oldest friends in a place that holds deep meaning for him.

“It’s clear that he finds being out here rejuvenating. It’s clear he enjoys spending time with his friends, who say he hasn’t changed, and he clearly values the time with his family,’’ said Denis McDonough, the chief of staff on his National Security Council, who spent many hours with the president throughout the trip. But, McDonough said, Obama continually pressed for more information - and was often the one turning the subject back to national security. “He has a hunger for this stuff. He is always asking, what if we did this? What’s the latest? What more can we be doing?’’ he said.

It may be too soon to tell whether Obama did any lasting damage by staying out of sight early on in the trip as Republicans have claimed - or whether the White House acted in a timely manner to shift perceptions of his active role. “There were 48 hours of missing tape,’’ said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who is vacationing nearby on the Big Island of Hawaii. “Clearly the Republicans, who have short memories, used the period of non-communication to politically paint him as being weak on national security when the opposite is true. But you have to get the truth out in time.’’ Still, Brazile said, after a quick rebound, “the Obama team is now ahead of the game.’’

It was at the Marine base where Obama broke his silence on Monday, appearing to comment on the would-be bomber aboard the Christmas Day flight to Detroit. He appeared again on Tuesday with an update, as the White House entourage shifted into high gear. Senior White House officials, resigned to the fact that their own semi-vacations had been ruined, began treating the trip as if it were no different from an extended foreign or domestic swing.

In the end, it may have helped that Obama was not the only political celebrity in Hawaii over the holidays: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vacationed on the Big Island of Hawaii. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh stayed a short distance from the Obamas on Oahu before being taken to the hospital with chests pains on Wednesday night.

President Obama is expected to return to Washington on Monday.