The right criticism of Obama’s vacation habits is that he should take more, not less

Slacker in chief?
Slacker in chief?
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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What’s more befitting of the American president—being a chronic workaholic, or taking a couple weeks off to hit the links with Larry David and read The Girl on the Train?

That’s the contrast Donald Trump drew when criticizing president Barack Obama for declining to disrupt his vacation to visit flood-ravaged Louisiana. Trump’s attack came as he was touring the disaster areas. He and critical media outlets declined to note that Louisiana’s governor asked Obama to stay away in order to not to divert law enforcement resources. Trump ultimately prevailed; Obama is visiting Baton Rouge today.

We should all be glad he waited until his vacation was over, though.

Abstaining from vacation is a pretty excellent way to be a worse president. Research shows that working too much feeds stress and fatigue, which takes a toll on physical health. Mental health is even more of a concern, though. We have a finite amount of cognitive bandwidth. Overtaxing it makes us think less clearly—which is why taking lengthy vacation is crucial to boosting job performance. Those who refuse taking time off from work are more prone to making mistakes and find it harder to keep their cool under pressure.

This is a memo clearly didn’t make it to Trump Tower. Trump, you see, doesn’t take vacations, as his spokeswoman recently reiterated.

Vacationgate boils down to a problem that Trump perfectly embodies: America’s tortured relationship with work. Despite the research on the importance of vacations, more than two-fifths didn’t take any vacation in 2014, according to CBS News. That’s only in part because the US is the only advanced economy that doesn’t require paid vacations (nearly a quarter of its workers don’t get paid vacations or holidays). Of those who do take time off, nearly a third spend their vacation glued to their mobile device.

That said, Obama isn’t exactly the paragon of work-life balance either. Obama has taken far less vacation than his predecessor, George W. Bush, says Matthew Dickinson, political science professor at Middlebury College, in a blog post about presidential vacation habits. Plus, no president truly gets to truly unwind; he still receives daily intelligence and security briefings.

Despite inevitable interruptions, one of the better exemplars of presidential unplugging is Harry Truman, who headed to Key West to de-stress. As Dickinson recounts, Truman spent his days lounging on the beach while his staff played volleyball in between meetings. At night he played small-stakes poker. Not a bad way to unwind from high-stakes politics.