Why It's So Idiotic to Complain When the President Takes a Vacation

There are a lot of stupid ways people attack presidents from the other party, but there can't be that many as stupid as the complaint that he takes too many vacations. Since Obama is now on Martha's Vineyard, despite the fact that there are things going on in the world, the volume of these complaints has grown, like the inevitable rise of the tide. Conservatives are in full on mockery mode (did you know he plays golf!!!), and the press is getting into the act as well. For instance, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank took on the vacation issue in a piece colorfully titled "Obama Vacations As the World Burns," explaining that "Even presidents need down time, and Obama can handle his commander-in-chief duties wherever he is. But his decision to proceed with his getaway just 36 hours after announcing the military action in Iraq risks fueling the impression that he is detached as the world burns." That pretty much sums up the problem with how the press discusses this issue. There's no substantive reason why it's a problem, it just "risks fueling the impression" that there's a problem. But nobody's holding a gun to any reporter's head demanding that they write not about substance but about which impressions are being fueled. And what really fuels that impression? Why, articles like that one.

As everybody acknowledges, when the president goes on vacation, it's not like he's out of touch. He travels with a significant staff, is in communication with the White House constantly, and of course has close access to the nuclear "football," should it become necessary to end all life on planet earth at a moment's notice. And when it comes to giving himself vacations, Obama has been rather parsimonious. George W. Bush is the recent record-holder, and it's not even close. He spent 879 days away from the White House during his eight years in office, including 16 full months at his "ranch" in Crawford, Texas.

At this point we should acknowledge that liberals used to talk plenty about Bush's vacations when he was president. And it was ridiculous then too, not because we don't want the president to be devoted to the job, but because of who was making the complaint. None of the things liberals didn't like about Bush would have been improved had he spent more time toiling away in the White House. Nor would conservatives be happier with the policy choices Barack Obama makes today if he stayed away from Martha's Vineyard or didn't play golf as often.

And that's the real reason the vacation complaint is so absurd. No one—not the opposition party, and not reporters—actually believes that the quality of a presidency has anything to do with how many hours the president logs in the Oval Office. Yes, it now seems weird that with the most important job in the world, Ronald Reagan worked basically 9 to 5 and didn't come in on weekends. But was the sheer quantity of hours he worked the cause of his disconnection from the details of governing? No, it was just his style. There has never been a president about whom you can honestly say, "If he had pulled a couple of all-nighters, everything would have been different."

The problem, I think, is that on some level Americans have a presumption that vacation is basically sinful, that the moment you leave work you're indulging your selfishness and shirking your responsibilities. This assumption can be found throughout American society, but it's particularly acute in Washington, where people believe that that the amount you accomplish is directly correlated with how late you stay at the office. I've encountered this in any number of workplaces, and I'm sure you have too. But there's almost no reason to think it's true.

As you may know, Americans take fewer vacation days than anyone else in the developed world, both as a matter of practice and as a matter of law. In pretty much every other advanced country, employers are required to give paid vacation and holidays, in quantities that ensure that their employees have the time to recharge, relax, and have a life. Here's a graph from the Center for Economic Policy and Research comparing mandated paid vacation and holidays in OECD countries:

That's us over on the right, at zero. If you lived in Germany, for instance, a country with a high standard of living and extremely productive workers, you'd have 20 days of paid vacation and 10 paid holidays mandated by law. That's 6 weeks off per year. Paid.

Of course, most Americans get some paid vacation and paid holidays. But it's entirely up to the generosity of your boss. Incredibly, many workers don't use the vacation days they have — as much as half of Americans' vacation time goes unused. And the people who could use it the most—lower-wage, hourly workers—usually get little or no paid vacation or holidays at all. And most workers who do take vacation end up working while they're vacating, like the president does.

So the next time you see someone criticize the president for taking a vacation — whether it's a conservative criticizing this president, or a liberal criticizing the next Republican one — the question you have to ask is, "Do you think that if he were back in the Oval Office he'd be making the right decisions, but because he's away from Washington he's making the wrong decisions?" When the answer is no, as it inevitably will be, the logical response is: So what the hell are you complaining about?

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