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In election year, even vacation is political for Obama

President Obama decided to cancel an August vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, where the first family had retreated the past three summers to a $50,000-a-week waterfront estate in Chilmark.

AP/File

President Obama decided to cancel an August vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, where the first family had retreated the past three summers to a $50,000-a-week waterfront estate in Chilmark.

For the president of the United States, whose social tastes are routinely analyzed, imitated, and disparaged, summer vacation in a reelection year has as much to do with symbolism as scenery.

Kick back with the family? Fine. Wine and dine with moneyed intellectuals? Maybe not so much.

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Perhaps with this calculus in mind, President Obama decided to cancel an August vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, where the first family had retreated the past three summers to a $50,000-a-week waterfront estate in Chilmark.

No cancellation for Mitt Romney, who is Jet-Skiing on Lake Winnipesaukee this week and enjoying a smorgasbord of family sports at his summer home in Wolfeboro, N.H.

Obama campaign officials declined Tuesday to say whether the cancellation was politically motivated, but the nation’s stubborn unemployment and sputtering economy undoubtedly were considered.

“It’s the prudent move,” said Robert J. Guttman, director of the Center on Politics and Foreign Relations at Johns Hopkins University. “Obama shouldn’t be seen on Martha’s Vineyard. He should go home to Chicago and lay out on a blanket by Lake Michigan.”

“Or better yet,” Guttman added, “he should go on TV and say, ‘Until unemployment goes down to 5 percent, I’m not taking a vacation.’ ”

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The right vacation can enhance a family-man persona and reveal a fun side often hidden behind suits and podiums. The wrong excursion can make a president seem out of touch with middle-class voters who might not be able to afford such a trip.

“I don’t think anyone begrudges the president a vacation, but the type of vacation is important. When people think of Martha’s Vineyard, they think of rich and exclusive,” Guttman said.

Presidential vacations have a long tradition that dates to the founders. John Adams decamped to his farm in modern-day Quincy for several months. Theodore Roosevelt occasionally performed his executive duties in Oyster Bay, N.Y. And John F. Kennedy enjoyed sailing at the family’s famous compound in Hyannis Port.

Location might influence public perception as much as the state of the nation. A vacation at the family retreat can often seem less frivolous, an expected routine, and more evocative of hearth and home during the heat of a reelection campaign.

Ronald Reagan rode horses at his ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., in the summer of 1984, and George W. Bush whacked brush in 2004 on his spread in Crawford, Texas. Although they lost bids for a second term, Jimmy Carter relaxed at home in Plains, Ga., in 1980, and George H.W. Bush decompressed in 1992 with five days of boating, golf, and tennis at Kennebunkport, Maine.

Perhaps vacation can be too liberating. Reagan sent aides scrambling to do damage-control after a few gaffes during his Santa Barbara sojourn in 1984. In the most infamous episode, Reagan made a joke, which became alarmingly public, as he warmed up for a radio address.

“My fellow Americans,” Reagan said, “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

That November, unperturbed, Reagan went on to trounce Walter Mondale.

Obama’s decision to bypass the Vineyard this summer was foreshadowed in 1996. That year, as his reelection bid gathered momentum, Bill Clinton steered clear of the island, where he had frequently taken his family. They headed instead to Wyoming and visited Yellowstone National Park.

Obama is working hard to burnish an image as the candidate who better understands middle-class concerns. Polls consistently show the president beating Romney in this area, but Obama’s remark last month that “the private sector is doing fine” spawned a fusillade of attacks that he is aloof and out of touch with the economy and average Americans.

A fifth of the nation’s workers cannot afford to vacation at all this year, according to a recent survey by CareerBuilder, a job search site. Many more cannot afford to vacation like the first family, whose Martha’s Vineyard digs for the past three summers were nestled on 28 secluded acres complete with round-the-clock Secret Service protection and fast, congestion-free rides to any point on the island.

Compared with Clinton’s six presidential vacations on the Vineyard, however, Obama’s visits have seemed less eventful to many islanders. That perception might have as much to do with style as with their itineraries.

Sandra Lippens, owner of Tilton Tents and Party Rentals in Vineyard Haven, supplied tents for events for each president and sees a difference.

“Clinton always participated in the community when he visited,” Lippens said. “He’d go to the agricultural fair, the book store. It was just more fun. When he was golfing, people could approach him and shake his hand. With Obama, you can’t get within a hundred feet.”

With four months of tough campaigning to go, even the president’s social circle on Martha’s Vineyard can appreciate the pragmatic and political appeal of visiting battleground states instead of the island.

“I would love to see him, but I hope he is in North Carolina, Ohio, or Florida in August,” said Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, a friend who taught both Barack and Michelle Obama at the school. “He needs a break, but the Vineyard is not the place to get much-needed rest.”

Guttman, the political analyst, sees another benefit for Obama. As the president hosts military guests at the White House on Wednesday, his presumed challenger will be seen in a much different setting.

“I think the timing was perfect for Obama — right as we’re seeing pictures of Romney vacationing on the lake,” Guttman said.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com; Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com

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