President Obama departed the Island just after sunset on Sunday, concluding a 15-day vacation that saw a mix of work and recreation and was noticeably cast in the shadow of world turmoil.
It was the fifth time Mr. Obama vacationed on the Island as a sitting president. The President, First Lady Michelle Obama and daughter Malia landed at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport on August 9 on a clear-blue Saturday afternoon. A small crowd of onlookers stood at the airport to greet him, though school buses and security personnel blocked their view. As in past years, the Obamas were driven by motorcade from the airport to a rental home in Chilmark. This year the home was off North Road in the Prospect Hill area which overlooks Vineyard Sound and the Elizabeth islands.
Though the Obamas pursued many of the same activities they have in years past, they seemed to move in a bubble, barely visible or not visible at all to both the general public and also the traveling press corps that accompanies the president wherever he goes.
There were fewer photographs of the President this year and fewer public outings during a vacation that was punctuated by strife in international and domestic affairs.
Mr. Obama spent many hours on the golf course, mostly at Farm Neck but also at the Vineyard Golf Club, completing nine rounds in 15 days. His partners included athletes and friends Ahmad Rashad, Ray Allen and Alonzo Mourning, as well as some White House aides and other friends.
As in past years, the Obamas went biking in the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest and visited a remote private beach on the south shore in Edgartown.
There were hikes in Chilmark and meals out at Atria in Edgartown, the Sweet Life Cafe in Oak Bluffs and State Road in West Tisbury. Mr. Obama watched the yearly late summer Oak Bluffs fireworks display from Sea View avenue in the rental home of his senior advisor Valerie Jarrett.
Early in the vacation he attended a Democratic Senate Campaign Committee fundraiser in Vineyard Haven at the home of the president of Berklee School of Music, where he gave a speech which began with a few rare words about the Island.
“It’s really wonderful to be at Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Obama said. “Michelle and the girls are having a wonderful time. We were hanging out with some seals this afternoon who came by and said hello . . . it couldn’t have been nicer.”
On one evening, Mr. Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both attended a private birthday celebration for Ann Jordan, wife of businessman Vernon Jordan. The event attracted media attention, coming a short time after Mrs. Clinton had publicly criticized the President’s foreign policy in an interview with The Atlantic. Mrs. Clinton also made a public appearance on the Island that week to sign books at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore.
On another evening the Obamas attended a jazz concert at Featherstone Center for the Arts. The event was a benefit for Student Achievement Through Opportunity, an organization based in Hartford, Conn., that works to enhance opportunities for minority and low-income students.
During his stay, Mr. Obama was accompanied by National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Deputy Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, among others. Midway through his vacation the President flew back to Washington for two days of meetings with top advisors. He also addressed the press and the nation from the Vineyard more than once: on escalating tensions and later air strikes over Iraq, on the fatal shooting of a young African American man in Ferguson, Mo., that stirred racial and civil unrest, and on the gruesome murder of a U.S. journalist who had been kidnapped in Syria two years ago. Then late last week Mr. Obama came under sharp criticism in the press for being so visible on the golf course with so many crises going on around him.
In a tense press briefing at the Edgartown School last Friday, Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz attempted to quell the growing storm of criticism. “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,” he said.
“Generally speaking, sports and leisure activities are a good way for release and clearing of the mind for a lot of us,” he continued. “First and foremost, he’s doing his job. Just because the President is in a different location doesn’t mean he’s not doing his job . . . nobody can deny he’s been deeply engaged.”
The enthusiasm that generally accompanies the visit of a sitting president on the Vineyard appeared muted on nearly every front this year, even through the usual expressions of homemade signs, commemorative T-shirts and ice cream flavors in tourist shops. One Island artist who tried to display a sculpture on town property in Chilmark to commemorate the visit was asked to take it down.
Jay Lagemann, who is perhaps best known for the swordfish harpooner that stands near Menemsha harbor, had created a sculpture of his own family in 2009 which he calls the American Family. When he started showing it to the public, people assumed that it depicted the First Family.
“Everybody thinks it’s the Obamas, and it’s become the Obamas, but originally it was my family back in the 70s,” Mr. Lagemann said. “And I realized, it’s really a sculpture of the American family. They are an American family, and we are an American family.”
Mr. Lagemann placed the sculpture in the grassy triangle at Beetlebung Corner but took it down after three days following complaints received by the town.
He said he was not sure whether the Obamas had a chance to see the sculpture.
“It would be nice if they saw it, but they are in their own world,” Mr. Lagemann said. “They have enough to worry about.”
The Obamas did get to spend time with another Lagemann sculpture that lives in the home they were renting from Joanne Hubschman, a seasonal resident. The sculpture appears in the foreground of a White House photograph taken of Mr. Obama speaking to the governor of Missouri.
On Sunday night, after a day spent tucked out of sight in Chilmark, Mr. Obama left the Island the way he had arrived: in a series of coordinated, swift movements that led to the departure of several helicopters, which flew the President and his entourage to the Coast Guard air station in Bourne on Cape Cod. There the President and First Lady shook hands with a group of officers from the Coast Guard and Air National Guard before boarding Air Force One for the trip back to Washington, D.C.