- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2016

Of all the perks of the presidency that Barack Obama will miss as he leaves the White House, it’s a good bet that Camp David won’t rank high on the list.

Compared with his predecessors, President Obama has spent little downtime over the past eight years at the secluded presidential retreat in the mountains overlooking Thurmont, Maryland. In total, Mr. Obama has visited Camp David 39 times, spanning all or parts of 93 days — barely 3 percent of his two-term tenure.

By contrast, President George W. Bush made 149 visits to Camp David in two terms, covering all or parts of 487 days, said Mark Knoller, the CBS News White House reporter who keeps meticulous records of presidential comings and goings.

Mr. Obama’s visits to the retreat have been less frequent during his second term. Tentative plans to host congressional leaders at Camp David in the “fourth quarter” of his presidency never materialized as Mr. Obama’s relationship with Republican lawmakers continued to erode.

The last time Mr. Obama visited Camp David was in July, when he spent a pre-birthday weekend with friends. First lady Michelle Obama hosted a “girls’ weekend” for some of her friends in October at the retreat, which costs about $10 million per year to maintain and staff.

As in so many other ways, things may be about to change.

Presidential historian and author Doug Wead said he believes President-elect Donald Trump and his family — including four grown children and 10-year-old Barron, eight grandchildren and three Trump siblings — will spend more time at Camp David than the Obamas despite owning expensive homes in New York City and in Palm Beach, Florida. Mr. Wead called Camp David “a perfect match for the Trumps.”

“I suspect they may follow the pattern of the Kennedys. The Kennedys didn’t like it. They thought it was a dump,” Mr. Wead said. “They had their place in Hyannis Port [Massachusetts], their place in Palm Beach. They did everything they could to stay out of the White House. But as the months progressed, they ended up loving Camp David and embracing it.”

There has been speculation that Mr. Trump may use his Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, New Jersey, as a kind of “Camp David North,” where he has hosted Cabinet prospects during the presidential transition. Although it is a private club and is only an hour’s flight from Washington, it presents security and access problems.

Mr. Wead predicted that the Trumps will come to appreciate Camp David’s relatively hassle-free security. Around Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan, he said, “the security’s a mess.”

“It’s not that they’re worried about security; it’s the imposition that it causes so many others,” said Mr. Wead, who worked as a special assistant to President George H.W. Bush. “The New York thing is going to get old. If it’s a big, sprawling family, like the Carters, with grown children who have families of their own, it’s perfect. And you don’t have the [security] mess.”

Even Mr. Trump’s exclusive seaside estate and club in Florida, Mar-a-Lago, “wasn’t built with presidential security in mind,” Mr. Wead said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump gets in there and buffs it up,” he said of Camp David, which was built in the 1930s. “He’s a builder by nature. I wouldn’t be surprised if he put his own stamp on Camp David and made it something pretty spectacular. He doesn’t seem to be bound by tradition.”

Presidential preserve

The 180-acre Camp David was built during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency as a Works Progress Administration project and opened in 1938 as a retreat for federal employees. Roosevelt visited for the first time in 1942 and called it “Shangri-La,” after the utopia described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon.”

President Truman winterized the cabins in the 1940s, and President Eisenhower renamed the retreat Camp David after his father and grandson in the 1950s. The Bush family rode toboggans there in winter; the Reagans rode horses.

The facility is maintained by the Navy and staffed by Marines from the barracks at Eighth and I streets in Southeast Washington. Besides the Obamas, administration officials have used it for staff retreats and other events.

But Mr. Obama prefers to relax on an 18-hole golf course, which Camp David lacks. It also has been suggested that the Obamas’ daughters, Malia and Sasha, who were relatively young when they entered the White House, have preferred to spend time with friends in Washington rather than decamping to the Maryland woods.

Among Camp David’s many amenities is skeet shooting, which Mr. Obama managed to turn into a minor controversy in 2013 as he was pushing Congress to impose universal background checks on gun purchases. He told an interviewer that he shot skeet “all the time” at Camp David and said he has “profound respect” for hunting traditions.

Critics weren’t buying it, so the White House released a photograph of Mr. Obama skeet shooting at Camp David. His right hand was gripping the barrel relatively far forward in what looked to some gun enthusiasts like an awkward pose.

Mr. Wead said Camp David is “perfect for families where the kids are grown and can have their own privacy.”

“The Obama kids didn’t need it as much,” Mr. Wead said. “The Reagans couldn’t wait to get out there for weekends. [President Reagan] would kind of sneak ahead on Thursdays sometimes.”

Camp David has been the site of historic summits. Roosevelt conferred there with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Eisenhower held a summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In 1978, President Carter hosted talks with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that resulted in the outlines of a peace treaty. President Clinton hosted Israelis and Palestinians in a failed bid for a peace deal. George W. Bush hosted foreign heads of state at Camp David 19 times in eight years.

Mr. Obama has hosted foreign leaders at the retreat only twice, most recently in 2015 when he met with Persian Gulf leaders. He has opted at times to hold summits with leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands resort in California, which has golf courses.

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