- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 22, 2009

President Obama left the White House on Friday for a 10-day vacation, taking with him the family dog Bo and leaving behind an acrimonious and increasingly messy debate about a proposed overhaul of the nation’s health care system.

Mr. Obama left the White House’s South Lawn by Marine helicopter early in the afternoon for the presidential retreat at Maryland’s Camp David. He and his family then will head on Sunday morning to Massachusetts’ Martha’s Vineyard, where they will stay at a private 28-acre estate and are expected to keep mostly to themselves.

“I think he’s going to spend a decent part of his time relaxing with his family,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. “There are no official events scheduled in the week ahead. I anticipate that he’ll play golf a number of times.”

But will he play golf with professional golf star Tiger Woods, as rumored?

“I have no idea if he’s going to golf with Tiger Woods,” Gibbs demurred in the briefing room; the president simply flashed a grin as he strode across the South Lawn and said he planned to play a lot of golf.

It’s just one piece of the frenzy over the first family’s first vacation in office. And to date, there have been more questions than answers about the Obama break.

Will he visit ailing Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy? (No plans yet, aides say.) Will he attend the rumored wedding of former first daughter Chelsea Clinton on the Vineyard? (No comment from the White House; denials of a wedding from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.) Will Michelle Obama again wear shorts that caught the eye of the fashion world? (No comment on her wardrobe from the first lady’s East Wing.)

It’s a private trip, aides stressed to reporters in a mid-afternoon conference call Friday urging the press to respect the first family’s privacy.

“Just to reiterate: It is our strong hope and desire that you all, during this family vacation, will respect the privacy of 8-year-old Sasha and 11-year-old Malia Obama. This is a strong request by the first family,” Mr. Gibbs told reporters, conveying a direct appeal from the Oval Office.

“If the girls are out and about on Martha’s Vineyard without their parents, it is our strong desire that you give them their space and their privacy and you don’t cover two little girls who are on vacation … and are not public figures.”

Not public, but certainly popular. Already on the island, vendors are selling T-shirts with the first family’s pictures and even promoting Bo, the first dog who will join the Obamas on the island. There are cupcakes and ice creams named for the Obamas and even cardboard cutouts of the president in storefront windows.

The Vineyard is small - just 23 miles long with a year-round population of about 15,000. It was a favored choice for former President Bill Clinton, as well as celebrities such as actor Ted Danson and singer Carly Simon. At least six presidents have visited while in office, say Vineyard tourism officials.

It’s also a retreat from the contentious debate over Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul that has dominated recent weeks and set back the White House’s agenda. Aides say they don’t expect Mr. Obama to wade into that issue while staying at the privately-owned compound that rents for $35,000 a week. The Obamas are paying for their part of the trip; taxpayers are picking up the tab for security and White House staff, which is customary for all presidents.

There has been some mild criticism of the president’s decision to take a break on the exclusive island with the economy still struggling and Mr. Obama’s top legislative priority hanging in the balance.

“The American people are looking to you, Mr. President. They’ll follow your lead,” wrote Robert Guttman, director of the center on politics and foreign relations at Johns Hopkins University, on the liberal Huffington Post Web site.

“Why not lead them to the places that need your help the most, instead of to an already financially stable and prosperous New England island? America’s heartland is calling, Mr. President, won’t you answer their call?”

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