President Barack Obama ended a Hawaiian vacation on Monday with a return to the Washington he never really escaped.
Obama and his family touched down at chilly Andrews Air Force Base after an overnight flight aboard Air Force One. That capped an 11-day trip that would be remembered more for an al-Qaida affiliate's botched attempt to bring down a Christmas Day flight in Detroit rather than the hours spent on golf courses or at luaus. The failed terror attack refocused the president's trip from R&R on the island of Oahu to a river of memos from homeland security aides.
Even though it was called a vacation, the trip to Obama's childhood home was hardly the holiday most Americans seek. Between golf outings, he phoned his homeland security secretary and counterterrorism adviser for regular updates. Rather than restaurant recommendations, the president was handed thrice-daily updates from the White House Situation Room. And an attack that killed seven U.S. intelligence officers put him on the phone with the CIA director before heading to the island's North Shore for a party with high school friends.
Such a hyped-up tone was exactly what officials sought to dodge.
"I asked the president if he had any special message for you guys," deputy press secretary Bill Burton deadpanned to reporters on the way to Oahu on Christmas Eve. "He would like for you to relax and to not anticipate any public announcements or news-making events."
It echoed almost exactly what Burton told reporters as they headed toward Obama's summer vacation off the coast of Massachusetts. That trip saw clambakes interrupted with the renomination of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, recreation replaced with mourning the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
This week shouldn't have come as a surprise, really. Presidents don't truly get to leave behind 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Makeshift complexes, briefing rooms
One aide traveled back and forth between a makeshift White House complex — at a hotel on Waikiki — to Obama's rented residence with secure memos. A third-floor room overlooking a sea of whitecaps had its curtains drawn while officials used it as a secure briefing room for the National Security Council.
And officials — sometimes in sandals or gym clothes — visited reporters in a the hotel ballroom they used for workspace.
"We reserve the right to screw up your day at a moment's notice," a smiling Burton casually told reporters seeking the president's schedule one afternoon.
There was plenty to keep the first-year president busy even without the attack on the Northwest Airlines flight. As Obama heads back to Washington, lawmakers from the House and Senate must resolve their differing versions of a health care overhaul that is squeaking toward passage.
His departure was delayed until Christmas Eve, when the Senate voted on the White House's top domestic priority.
Financial regulations are on the verge of winning their own version of an overhaul. A State of the Union address to Congress is due during the first weeks of 2010. The escalating war in Afghanistan is not going to run itself and the intelligence community is not going to reorganize without a direct hand from the Oval Office.
So even though Obama wore casual slacks on New Year's Day when he took his daughters to see a 3-D version of the film "Avatar," that BlackBerry on his belt wasn't for fashion. For a wartime president who dodged dealing with a terrorist attack on Christmas, it's just one reminder he's never completely distanced from his job as commander in chief.
Even when ordering popcorn.