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Obama vacation brings rest, relaxation and rebuke

By Kristi Keck, CNN
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Obama and family unwind in Maine
  • Obama and family at Mount Desert Island, Maine, for the weekend
  • GOP criticizing Obama for vacationing during environmental disaster
  • Democratic strategist says criticism is "galling," considering Bush's frequent trips
  • "The president is the president wherever he is," Paul Begala says

(CNN) -- President Obama and his family arrived Friday for a weekend getaway in Maine, but along with a little rest and relaxation comes criticism that the president is taking it easy with the Gulf of Mexico oil crisis in a critical phase.

The Obamas plan to spend the weekend on Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park. The trip marks the president's third weekend vacation since the oil disaster began in April.

The Republican National Committee launched a website blasting what it considers Obama's "leisure activities or missteps" during the oil disaster, like playing golf, attending concerts and vacationing in Asheville, North Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; and now Maine.

Obama has also faced criticism for scheduling a trip up north, instead of vacationing in the Gulf, as he advised other Americans to do.

"Presidents are certainly entitled to vacation, just like everybody else, but there is a fine line as to when presidents should do it, what they should and where they should do it," said Brad Blakeman, a former member of President George W. Bush's senior staff and the deputy assistant for appointments and scheduling.

Video: Obama's 'good news' on oil spill

"Presidents have to be cognizant of the fact that everything they do is going to be scrutinized," said Blakeman, who also is a professor for Georgetown University's Semester in Washington program.

Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said the Republican criticism is "galling," considering Bush's frequent trips to Camp David and his home in Crawford, Texas.

"Barack Obama is working as hard as any president that we've had in recent history and certainly harder than the most immediate previous president," he said.

CBS's Mark Knoller, who keeps track of presidents' comings and goings, calculated that Bush spent all or part of 977 days at Camp David or in Texas during his two terms.

Blakeman noted that visits to those locations were working trips and not getaways. Bush's staff would travel with him, and work would continue as usual. The Crawford ranch was known as the "Western White House" because of the infrastructure there.

As for calls that Obama should vacation in the Gulf, Simmons said, "Where he chooses to take his days off should really be up to him. We don't want to get into a situation where the president is making familial vacation decisions based upon polling or political maneuvers."

Scott Stanzel, Bush's deputy press secretary who often traveled with the president when he was away from the White House, said that changing locations provided a good opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of Washington.

"President Bush, on the weekends, would often go to Camp David because the size of the bubble you are in expands, so you can go out for a walk or bike ride without having to arrange security detail," he said.

Stanzel was in Crawford with Bush for a number of crises that could not have been planned for, like the conviction of Saddam Hussein, the death of President Ford and the assassination of Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto.

Bush was notified of Bhutto's death immediately and delivered a statement to the press pool. "It would have almost been like we were at the White House in terms of the teams that would convene and talk about the issues surrounding that assassination," Stanzel said.

The problem for Obama, Stanzel said, is the visuals that could come out of his trip. A picture of Obama playing golf alongside images from the Gulf could send a negative message.

The president is the president wherever he is.
--Paul Begala, former adviser to President Clinton

Paul Begala, a CNN contributor and former adviser to President Clinton, said that vacationing or not, "The president is the president wherever he is.

"I thought it was silly when people attacked Bush for going on vacation, so I'll be consistent and say it's silly when people attack President Obama for going on vacation," he said.

"Of all of the concerns that Americans may have, they do not need to worry whether President Obama is a hard-working man. They may agree or disagree with his policies, but there is just no doubt that the guy is busting his rear end."