The art of the presidential vacation is a tricky one. This week President Biden is practicing that delicate balance at his vacation home at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware.
“A vacation for a president is not really a vacation — you’re not ever fully off,” said Tevi Troy, a presidential historian and former White House aide.
Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to have a telephone installed in a presidential vacation home. “The concept of the presidential vacation really went out the window that moment,” Troy said.
It stands to reason that the leader of the free world can’t fully unplug from White House duties. Troy points to a 1793 war that broke out in Europe while President George Washington was on vacation.
“When he returned 10 days later, they had a Cabinet meeting to discuss the situation. Could you imagine a war breaking out and they have to wait 10 days for the president to return to discuss it? It’s unimaginable today,” Troy said.
Bike rides and movie theaters, plus the entourage
While families heading to Rehoboth this summer might haul coolers of food and beach toys with them in the car, the president has a far bigger packing list.
“You have to bring national security aides, you have to bring a [communications] apparatus, obviously you have to bring the football — which is the nuclear codes — so a presidential vacation is much more complicated than just loading up the minivan with some peanut butter sandwiches and suitcases,” Troy said.
And when you’re the president, even a simple bike ride becomes a major production, with Secret Service trailing behind, crowds of people cheering, and a D.C. press pool that has dutifully followed all the way to Delaware.
This week, the Bidens have gotten several bike rides in at a favorite location, Gordons Pond, and ventured to see the new film Oppenheimer at a local theater.
A bike rider reaches out for a fist bump as President Biden rides by on his bike in Rehoboth Beach. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Biden, who spends a good deal of time in Delaware, has long been a regular at Rehoboth.
Locals like Bridget Mullins said the novelty of the president coming to town, along with his motorcade and its tendency to back up traffic, has worn off.
“He went to the main church here and that was exciting the first time, you know? But after that, it’s a hassle,” she said, shaking her head.
Kids are a different story.
“I love the fact that we’re in the same town,” said 11-year old A’Ryah, who visited Rehoboth from Dover, Del., to have a family beach day.
She quickly explained why she’s on the prowl to spot the president.
“He’s rich and he could buy me an iPad, he can make sure I get the best birthdays, the best Christmases,” she said.
Once high schoolers Gabriella Hildreth and Ariana Stanton realized Biden was in town, they quickly launched into a debate about what to do if they saw the president.
“I’d be like, ‘How are you? Can I have a picture?’ or shake his hand?” said Hildreth. “I’d want to! Then you could be like, ‘I shook President Biden’s hand!’ ”
Gabriella Hildreth and Ariana Stanton visited Rehoboth Beach when President Biden was in town. They debated whether it’s better to say hi or give the president space if they were to run into him.
“I wouldn’t,” mused Stanton. “I’d leave him alone, I feel like he gets it all the time.”
The pair agree that maybe one should “respect the president’s boundaries.”
Meanwhile, 19-year-old Lily Sakellariou is pondering a potential interaction with Biden. She’s working this summer at “The Ice Cream Store” — a popular spot that has a picture of Biden on display behind the waffle cone maker from when he visited years ago.
“Almond joy was the flavor,” Sakellariou said, as she recreated the presidential cone.
Lily Sakellariou, 19, recreates an almond joy flavored ice cream cone that President Biden had at the “Ice Cream Shop” in Rehoboth Beach several years ago.
She wondered whether the almond joy bat signal will work this trip.
“I’m sure he would be super nice,” she said, giving a low-voiced “Appreciate it, kid,” impression as she imagined what the president might say to her, adding she hopes he would compliment her scooping.
A U.S. Secret Service officer stands watch as President Biden and first lady Jill Biden sit under an umbrella in Rehoboth Beach on Sunday. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
The art of the presidential vacation
Presidential vacations can often be remembered by the times they go sideways.
Biden has interrupted past time away from the White House in order to sign the Inflation Reduction Act and postponed plans to head to Delaware in order to speak about the evacuation of American citizens from Afghanistan.
Troy noted the optics of returning from vacation can be just as important as the optics of the vacation itself.
“George W. Bush was on vacation in 2005 when [Hurricane] Katrina hit, and he initially thought he was not going to return to Washington,” he said. “You had a lot of pressure for him to get more involved. He flew back, but he flew back over the affected area and that sight of him looking down from Air Force One was a picture of him looking aloof and out of touch. And it was probably the worst photo-op of the Bush presidency.”
Daniel Fry visited Rehoboth from Kansas City for a family reunion. He said he’d be happy to see the president while on vacation, despite their political differences.(Barbara Sprunt/NPR)
He underscored: “So sometimes returning is necessary, but even the way in which you return can be problematic if you don’t do it right.”
Even if the responsibilities don’t end, pundits of both political parties often bemoan a president taking time away from Washington, D.C.
“One pet peeve of mine is that when a Republican president is in office, the Democrats scream, ‘How dare they go on vacation?’ When the Democrats in office, the Republicans scream, ‘How dare they go on vacation?’ ” Troy said. “Every president deserves their vacation, and I think it’s fruitless to criticize them for going on their vacations — they deserve it.”
And for some, spotting the president is a thrill that rises above politics. Daniel Fry, who’s visiting Rehoboth for a family reunion, had just barely missed seeing Biden in person earlier this week.
“I’m personally as pro-Republican and pro-Trump as can be,” he said. “I am not a fan of the Democrats, I am not a fan of Joe Biden, but he’s still our American president and it’s always been an honor and privilege to be in the presence of the president. So I think it’s kind of a cool thing.”
He said he plans to come back tomorrow in hopes of catching a glimpse.