By Philip Elliott
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama left the White House on Friday for a 10-day vacation, taking with him the beloved family dog and leaving behind an acrimonious debate about a proposed overhaul of the nation’s health care system.
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 headed Sunday evening to Massachusetts’ Martha’s Vineyard, where they are staying at a private 28-acre estate that rents for $35,000 a week. They are expected to keep mostly to themselves.
Their departure to Massachusetts was delayed by a half-day because of Hurricane Bill.
“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 be play golf with 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 and said as he strode across the South Lawn that 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.
Will he visit ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.? (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 midafternoon conference call Friday designed to caution them 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,” 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 Ted Danson and 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 Obama’s health care overhaul that has dominated recent weeks and set back the White House’s agenda. Aides say they don’t expect Obama to wade into that while staying at the privately owned compound.
The Obamas are paying for their share of the vacation home; taxpayers are picking up the tab for security and White House staff, which is customary for all presidents.