Saturday, March 8, 2014
KEY LARGO, Fla. (AP) — The crisis in Crimea won't keep President Barack Obama from forging ahead with a weekend getaway with his wife and daughters in the Florida Keys.
But it's more than the Oval Office that will be dark as Russia's incursion into Ukraine reaches its one week mark. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife are vacationing in the Virgin Islands. And national security adviser Susan Rice is traveling in the Middle East for meetings with her counterparts.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said "there's always a chance" Obama could cut a trip short and return to Washington, but this weekend's vacation appeared solid.
"The fact of the matter is what the president is doing this weekend in Florida is essentially what the president would be doing if he stayed back at the White House," Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama. The president, he said, was looking forward to "getting a little bit of downtime in the warm weather with his wife and daughters."
Obama's vacation at a private club on one of the islands off Florida's southern tip was tacked onto an afternoon visit by the president and his wife, Michelle, to a Miami high school to announce new Education Department initiatives to help more students complete the paperwork needed to qualify for federal financial aid or student loans.
Every president gets criticized for the amount of time he spends away from the White House, and Obama is no different.
Paul C. Light, who teaches public service at New York University, said Obama would have been wise to remain in Washington. Being in Florida with a still-fluid situation in Ukraine "makes the president look less interested in the issue than he clearly is," Light said. "It's just very bad optics."
Obama departed the White House one day after moving to levy financial sanctions and travel bans against those the U.S. accuses of threatening Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial borders. Officials in Crimea, a pro-Russian area of Ukraine, plan to hold a referendum March 16 to decide whether to become part of Russia.
Obama and Biden's decision to continue with their weekend vacation plans appeared to be an indication that the White House did not expect any quick resolution to the dispute.
Nevertheless, the White House made clear that Obama is staying on top of developments in Ukraine, noting that the president called German Chancellor Angela Merkel after arriving in Key Largo. Merkel has been cautious about imposing sanctions on Russia.
The Obama family vacation comes just a few weeks after the president's long weekend at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Obama had gone to Sunnylands to meet with King Abdullah II of Jordan. He stayed behind with a gaggle of childhood friends to play golf on the desert property's 9-hole course and on a private, 19-hole course elsewhere in the city that is owned by supporter Larry Ellison, co-founder of the Oracle software company and one of the richest men in America.
Obama will have plenty of opportunities to play golf this weekend, too.
He checked his family into the Ocean Reef Club, a private, by-invitation-only membership club that is more of a gated, self-contained community sprawled across 2,500 acres on the northern edge of Key Largo. The property has two championship golf courses. There's also a swimming lagoon, tennis courts, a spa and fitness center, shopping and more than a dozen restaurants among the club's varied offerings.
Obama flew by helicopter from Miami over the sun-kissed, blue waters of Florida Bay to arrive at the club's private airport. Scores of people apparently had driven their golf carts over to witness the arrival.
The Republican National Committee used Obama's vacation to draw a contrast with Americans still grappling with a sluggish economy.
"While President Obama vacations in the Florida Keys and Vice President Biden is spending his weekend in the Virgin Islands, millions of middle-class Americans are hurting from their failed economic policies," RNC chairman Reince Priebus said.
The vacation is Obama's third of the year.
Before Sunnylands, Obama and his family followed tradition and spent Christmas and New Year's in Hawaii, where he was born. The president and his daughters returned to the White House on Jan. 5, but Mrs. Obama spent a third week on the island to begin celebrating her 50th birthday later that month.
The family will scatter in less than two weeks.
Mrs. Obama departs March 19 for a weeklong trip to China without the president, but accompanied by daughters Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12, and her mother, Marian Robinson. A few days after they leave, Obama will embark on a weeklong trip through the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Saudi Arabia.
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