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Presidents should take real vacations

President Obama golfs on Martha's Vineyard.
President Obama golfs on Martha's Vineyard.
Matthew Healey-Pool/Getty Images

Two points about President Obama's decision to go golfing right after delivering a statement on ISIS's murder of James Foley.

1. Criticisms of presidential vacations are stupid.

2. It was insensitive of Obama to go straight to the links.

Something is always going wrong in the world. At the same time, presidents, like all human beings, need to rest. We call it "vacation," but the case for it goes beyond just pleasure: research shows this kind of rest actually makes people better at their jobs. But pretty much whenever a president tries to take a vacation there will be a few issues that make the presidential vacation look ill-timed. And so the other party will criticize the president for taking his vacation. Democrats did it all the time to President Bush. Republicans do it all the time to President Obama.

This is politics at its dumbest. The country is not well served by a burnt-out president. If there's a problem with presidential vacations it's that they're not restful enough. The way to do this right would be for the vice president to take over for a week or two — and for the president to get a call if something really goes wrong. Instead, the president takes working vacations, and the White House brags about how much work he gets done when he's supposed to be resting.

But so long as the president is still the president when he's on vacation, he still carries the symbolic weight of the role. He can't go directly from leading the nation in grieving to hitting a drive.

Obama has limited patience for the idea that he should act like he's doing his job rather than just do his job. A Democratic political consultant once told me that the problem with President Obama is that he doesn't care to "get caught trying." That is to say, he doesn't put on a show of trying to get things done when he doesn't think the show will help get the thing done.

Obama, of course, would say that this isn't his problem. The get-caught-trying thing is Washington's problem. The idea that politician should go around pretending to get things done even when they're not getting anything done is exactly why the American people hate Washington, and exactly why they elected to Barack Obama to change it.

And he is, in many ways, right about that. But there are days when it's bad to get caught not trying. The hours after delivering a statement about a murdered American journalist is one of them. It doesn't mean Obama needs to cancel his vacation whenever something bad happens. But those hours might be a better time to watch a movie out of the press's sight than to play golf in front of the cameras.

President George W. Bush faced this problem too. Shortly after this video went viral, he actually gave up golf for the rest of his presidency:

Perhaps that protected Bush from some criticism. But it didn't make him a better president. The real solution here isn't for presidents to try and calibrate their vacation activities to the news cycle. It's for presidents to stop trying to have it both ways. When they go on vacation they should, temporarily, stop being president.

This might be hard if there was no one who could do their job. But there is! In fact, it's probably good for vice presidents to get a few weeks in the Oval Office now and again — that way, if they do have to step up to the presidency, they have a bit of experience. If Acting President Joe Biden had delivered the US's response to ISIS while Obama vacationed with his family, that would have been better for everyone involved.