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White House by the waves

National security, political spin and family snorkelling are all part of the Obamas on holiday.

world Updated: Jan 02, 2010 23:15 IST

Before heading to a luau with his family in his childhood home of Hawaii, President Barack Obama calls CIA director Leon Panetta to discuss the deaths of seven CIA officers in a suicide attack in Afghanistan.

December 31: In the morning, before taking his family to a private viewing of ‘Avatar 3-D’, Obama called his counterterrorism and homeland security advisers for updates on an attempted airline attack by Al Qaeda a week earlier. On New Year’ Eve, after five hours of golf, he “cleared the decks” for work — sequestering himself for several hours to study some preliminary intelligence assessments.

Senior administration officials say Obama at no point considered cutting short his holiday trip to attend to matters on the mainland. They could not deny Obama still had plenty of fun despite the unexpected crises.

He played golf and basketball, went snorkelling and to the gym, and ate at his favourite Honolulu restaurant. His wife and children went to the beach, and his entire family spent time with a group of Chicago friends who travelled with them and local residents who have known Obama since childhood.

But a normal vacation this was not.

After an early wave of criticism for the president’s decision to decline comment for three full days on the attempted Christmas terrorist attack, his advisers spent the rest of the trip pursuing two competing goals: shielding the president from further scrutiny so he could enjoy his time off while proving that he was fully engaged in national affairs.

During Obama’s Thursday golf outing, his advisers released an official photograph made earlier in the day during his national security call, holding a phone with a concerned look on his face.

He was described as having achieved the ultimate work-life balance: shifting from national security commander to outdoor sportsman every day, all while catching up with some of his oldest friends in a place that holds deep meaning for him.

“It’s clear that he finds being out here rejuvenating,” said Denis McDonough, his National Security Council chief of staff. But, he said, Obama continually pressed for more information — and was often the one turning the subject back to national security.

“He has a hunger for this stuff. He is always asking, what if we did this? What’s the latest? What more can we be doing?”

It may be too soon to tell whether Obama did any lasting damage by staying out of sight early on in the trip as Republicans have claimed. “There were 48 hours of missing tape,” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.

Obama’s time here has not been tourist, in part because he is a former Hawaii resident. The luau he attended Wednesday was not at a resort but at the north shore home of high school friend Bobby Titcomb.

His family’s rental home was not in Waikiki, but in a residential neighbourhood.

Many family outings were to a nearby Marine base, where tight security was already in place and there was no danger of paparazzi. It was at the Marine base where Obama broke his silence about the Christmas bomber.

White House officials, resigned to the fact their own semi-vacations was ruined, began treating the trip as if it were no different than an extended foreign swing. A deputy staff secretary shuttled between the hotel, which had several rooms outfitted for secure conferencing, and the rental home where Obama is staying, bringing papers and updates to the president. Obama was briefed as often as six times a day.

The 2009 Hawaii respite could well be remembered as the one emblematic of the presidency. It demonstrated the maxim that you can take the president out of Washington, but Washington — and politics — never leave the president’s side, even over two national holidays.

For additional content from The Washington Post, visit www.washingtonpost.com