Why are Obama and Romney so bad at vacationing?

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo! News

Barack Obama may be the first president to write his way into the White House with his two autobiographies, but his first summer vacation as president did little to enhance his reputation as a bookish intellectual. During his one-week vacation on Martha’s Vineyard in August 2009 (interrupted by Ted Kennedy’s funeral), Obama played golf compulsively, worked in some half-court basketball, obsessed over his morning fitness routine, took on Michelle in tennis and went biking and swimming with his daughters. About all that was missing from this grueling athleticism were the Romney family sports of water-skiing and dressage.

The revelation that Obama, left to his own devices on vacation, is a competition-addicted jock should embarrass liberal Democrats. All through George W. Bush’s star-crossed presidency, liberals mocked his obsessive commitment to physical fitness as a symbol of Texas shallowness. Elaborate air castles of dubious psychological theories were built around the notion that Bush’s addiction to exercise was part of the same compulsive personality that once led him to heavy drinking. But when Obama displayed the same single-minded fanaticism about physical fitness, Democrats (when they mentioned it at all) chalked it up to the president’s well-rounded personality.

This week we have come full circle with the Romney Olympics, the highlight of a weeklong family retreat on Lake Winnipesaukee featuring Mitt and Ann Romney, their sons and grandchildren. The 65-year-old presidential candidate has augmented the family’s traditional minitriathlon of biking, swimming and running with new “sports” like hanging from a pole and, yes, nail pounding. (There has to be a political metaphor lurking somewhere in the Romney challenge to see who can hammer the most nails into a board in two minutes.) The message that emerges from the vacation news bulletins from Wolfeboro is that—surprise—a Romney vacation is family-centric and hypercompetitive.

There is an irresistible journalistic temptation to draw epic conclusions about an incumbent’s or would-be president’s character from the way he vacations. In a stirring profile in columnist courage, I’m going to resist. Sometimes a political leader’s vacation is just a vacation—complete with photo ops and pool reports. About the only overarching message I can find in the Obama and Romney styles of getaways is a complete inability to relax.

Someday I would love to hear the White House press secretary announce from a summer retreat: “The president spent the afternoon lying in the sun reading a novel and occasionally dozing off. He took a brief swim with his family before they had dinner together. There was no golf, no tennis and no pickup basketball. The same schedule is planned for tomorrow and the weekend.” But unless Hillary Clinton—a woman who appears to limit her exertions to globe-trotting—becomes president, I suspect that kind of lassitude from the commander in chief is about as likely as federal subsidies for yoga instructors.

The competitive gene is built into the psyches of the political figures who run for president. Especially for men, games like golf and tennis are a way of keeping score and demonstrating leader-of-the-pack mastery. It was George H.W. Bush who reveled in the ultimate presidential sport, speed golf played at such a breakneck pace that 18 holes could be completed in two hours rather than the normal four. In his 2003 book “First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters From Taft to Bush,” Don Van Natta Jr. quotes Bill Clinton on the appeal of golf: “This is the place where I had to slow down ... you literally can’t think about anything else. If you do, you can’t hit a shot.”

The truth is that the man who moves into the Oval Office next January cannot let his mind float free, unencumbered by cares and anxieties. The aides, the Secret Service and the urgent phone calls on secure lines are a constant reminder of the stakes that come with the presidency. Imagine Obama or Romney picking up a beach-reading thriller with lines like: “The president looked nervously at the clock in the White House Sit Room. Just 82 seconds to launch time—with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.” Talk about a busman’s holiday.

Like so much in a presidential campaign, a vacation is partly a stunt designed to convince gullible voters that Obama and Romney share their values and life experiences. Romney was just a typical American marching in a small-town Fourth of July parade in Wolfeboro accompanied by a typical vice presidential possibility, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Obama is just your average harried top executive who decided it isn’t politically prudent to return to Martha’s Vineyard this summer.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to Dick Morris for not only commissioning a poll about where the Clintons should vacation in 1996, but also for letting the world know that the choice of Jackson Hole, Wyo., was contrived. That’s how the game is always played, except for candidates like Romney who are blessed with an $8 million compound on a scenic lake. So let Romney and Obama pretend to unwind whether at Wolfeboro or at Camp David. The only way either of them will relax is by taking a long vacation as a private citizen after losing the election or leaving the White House.