With the Senate bearing down to pass health care reform legislation by the end of the year, President Barack Obama will be traveling for nearly half the remaining days of the month, making two trips to Scandinavia and then resting up in Hawaii over Christmas and New Year’s.
Democratic lawmakers and aides on Capitol Hill emphasized that Obama can be in touch continuously no matter where he is in the world. But he will be away at a crucial time and will have to dispense with one of his most effective lobbying tools: the personal appeal.
Many on Capitol Hill profess not to mind his absence. “I’m as happy to hear from him on the phone as I am in person,— said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who has conferred with Obama frequently on health care. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), one of the moderate swing votes whose support on the health bill is most coveted by the White House, said top officials such as Vice President Joseph Biden, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and others would be able to fill the void left by Obama.
Despite an opening to slam the president — after eight years of Democratic attacks on the vacation habits of former President George W. Bush — Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) first noted that Senators would be missing their own vacations, but then pulled back his fire.
“The president works 36 hours a day,— Cornyn said. “I don’t begrudge him a little R&R.—
And White House officials inevitably note that Obama is able to multitask and to dial a phone.
“They invented phones — they’re wonderful,— White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs deadpanned. “There’s secure video teleconferencing if anything needs to happen.—
But at least some in Congress admit to wanting to see more of him on Capitol Hill and said his trip to visit with Democratic Senators on health care Sunday wasn’t enough.
“The president needs to do what the president needs to do,— Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said. “But the president needs to have a bigger presence here.—
And Obama has made one-on-one and small-group Oval Office chats a signature of his lobbying style.
Senators on both sides of the aisle admit that the undivided attention of the leader of the free world has an effect on their thinking. And Obama’s absence may be felt just as the final roll calls are being taken.
The president plans to leave for an approximately 10-day vacation in Hawaii Dec. 23, returning Jan. 2. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has suggested the Senate could be at work completing the bill both the week of Christmas and the following week before New Year’s Day.
White House sources say there are currently no plans to cancel or shorten the trip. Gibbs minimized its vacation aspect.
“I think if you ask the president whether he is ever really on vacation — and I think if you asked any president whether they were ever really on vacation — one call, one report, one piece of information, I can assure you, can change all of that in a heartbeat,— he said.
With the White House perhaps cognizant that Obama should not be perceived as missing in action as his top domestic priority hangs in the balance, officials have made sure he is on the ground for as little time as possible during trips to Norway and Denmark. Each trip will last no more than 36 hours, according to an aide.
Obama will leave tonight for Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize and will be back by Friday morning. His quick visit to the Copenhagen climate summit will have him out of the country Dec. 18.
One Senator said Obama’s most effective strategy might be to bring his former colleagues along for one of the trips.
“If he really put in the full-court press, he’ll invite us to join him in Hawaii,— Bayh said.