It happens every August, as predictable as hurricanes and wild fires.
A US president goes on vacation, and half the nation reacts with scorn and mockery.
The latest offender is Donald Trump, who is spending 17 days at his New Jersey golf club this month. Before Trump, the Obama family vacations to Martha’s Vineyard were the object of Republican ire—including from Trump, who tweeted that Obama’s vacations were wasteful and unnecessary. When George W. Bush spent five weeks at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Democrats pounced. And so on, stretching back to Clinton to Bush to Reagan, and beyond. As The Atlantic describes, presidential vacations have been enraging the opposite party since John Adams, the second president, spent seven months on his Massachusetts farm in 1798.
This annual shaming ritual is silly for a number of reasons. Most obviously, it’s the height of hypocrisy to fault the actions of the president you oppose, while ignoring the same behavior in the president you favor. Secondly, a presidential vacation isn’t like your vacation. The president doesn’t actually unplug from the demands of the office. He still receives his daily intelligence briefings, he meets with advisors, and he occasionally plans missile strikes.
In our frantic, multi-tasked lives, we need time to pause and reflect, to process what we’ve learned, to draw conclusions, and to plan ahead. In a New York Times essay decrying our cult of busyness, Tim Krider wrote:
The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.
The benefits of time off are both psychological—a study of nearly 900 lawyers found vacation reduced depression—and physical. Men who skipped vacations over several years were 30% more likely to suffer heart attacks then those who take at least one week of holiday a year, according to another study.
Given the inherent stresses that come with the Oval Office, and the high importance of sound judgment, it can be argued that US presidents need more vacation than the rest of us. So why is there such hostility to presidential vacations? Some of it is just partisan sniping, of course, and some may be out of a legitimate fear that, with all that’s wrong with the world, he can’t afford to take his eye off the ball for a moment.
But much of it is also the product of the Protestant work ethic, the embrace of work and discipline that imbues so much of the institutions and customs of the US. The same culture that extols thrift and makes a virtue of entrepreneurism is one that scorns vacations and shames idleness. Maybe it takes a president who is in the business of selling leisure to finally break us of our flinty habits.