International affairs have once again intruded on the President’s quiet Island vacation this week, as he continues to be briefed on the escalating political situation in Iraq.
President Obama has enjoyed a working vacation, remaining in contact with multiple international leaders and receiving briefings from his staff, deputy press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters in a Wednesday morning briefing at the Edgartown School.
“The President is the President wherever he goes,” Mr. Schultz said, as he stood before a blue curtain and an American flag in the school cafeteria and addressed about 50 members of national press.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes began the briefing by taking questions on the current situation in Iraq, where the United States this week sent 130 military personnel to evaluate a humanitarian crisis there.
Mr. Rhodes spoke of efforts to provide aid to refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. He reiterated the President’s goal not to redeploy ground troops.
“The key point here is that the role of U.S. forces is not one of re-entering combat on the ground,” he said. “It’s how to provide humanitarian assistance to this affected population. And again, in terms of the kinetic actions that are being taken, those are in the form of air strikes.”
He said the United States wants to see that efforts to form a unity government are peaceful and representative of the people of Iraq.
“The White House will be very glad to see a new government in place with Prime Minister Abadi at the lead of that government,” he said.
There was a small barrage of questions about the relationship between the President and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is also visiting the Island this week.
In an interview with Atlantic Magazine this month, Mrs. Clinton criticized White House foreign policy, and questions have been raised about the state of their friendship.
“They have a close and resilient relationship,” Mr. Schultz said, noting that despite their rivalry on the 2008 presidential campaign trail, Mr. Obama appointed her as secretary of state.
“They continue to agree on a broad majority of issues confronting our country, even if they have the occasional policy difference,” he said.
He said the President was looking forward to seeing Mrs. Clinton this evening, when they will both be guests at a private birthday celebration for Ann Jordan, wife of Vernon Jordan, a Clinton adviser and longtime Vineyard seasonal resident.
Mr. Schultz said he didn’t expect there to be media access to the social gathering, but understood the press interest in the event.
Asked if the press would be able to document a hug between the two, he reiterated that the event would be closed to press.
“I believe the President and Secretary Clinton have had many hugs over the past two years,” he said. “Many of them have been caught on camera.”
The President will return to Washington on Sunday, where he will attend meetings at the White House.
So far this week, Mr. Obama has played three rounds of golf, attended a Democratic Senate Campaign Committee fundraiser in Vineyard Haven and dined out with his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama.
But Mr. Schultz described it as a working vacation. Mr. Obama has been accompanied by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Mr. Rhodes, and Deputy Chief of Staff Anita Breckenridge.
“There is never a perfect time for the President to take some time away with his family, but I think we can also all agree that it’s valuable to recharge your batteries, and I don’t think the American people begrudge their president for taking some time with his family,” the deputy press sceretary said. He said daughter Sasha arrives on the Island next week and Malia will be traveling back with the President.
The Edgartown School has served as the press filing center during Mr. Obama’s visit.
Mr. Schultz ended the briefing, which was his first, on a lighter note.
“We off to the Seafood Shanty?” he asked.