TODAY   |  August 20, 2011

Obama begins ‘working’ vacation

The president is still the President, even when he is getting some rest and relaxation on Martha’s Vineyard, the White House says. But Barack Obama begins his Massachusetts vacation, critics back in Washington insist it is the wrong time for him to be away. NBC’s Kristen Weller reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> economic news comes as president obama begins his summer vacation on martha 's vineyard. a trip that has left him under fire by republicans hoping to take his place in the white house . nbc's kristen welker is on martha 's vineyard for us. martha -- kristen ?

>> hi, good morning, lester. president obama doesn't have any events on his public schedule, but white house officials say he will be in constant contact with his advisers, trying to make a point that this is no ordinary vacation. the first picture from the president's vacation is a serious one. counterterrorism chief john brennan briefing mr. obama . and his first public outing took place across the street from where the media was already camped out. a bookstore in vineyard haven where he, malia, and sasha bought eight books. then mr. obama held an impromptu meet and greet. later, no cameras allowed when the president played golf. but nbc news did capture him for a few brief moments from afar. taking some shots, and doing a quick golf cart drive-by.

>> and that's why you're going to see him, i think, take great pains to show that it's a working vacation. that he's not sort of goofing off.

>> reporter: this, after a week that saw a jittery stock market , the president's approval rating for handling the economy dipped to new lows, and job fairs across the country that drew thousands of the nation's unemployed.

>> i'm looking for a job every day. and every day for the past four months. no luck.

>> reporter: in the days leading up to the trip, republican presidential candidates criticized the president for taking what they characterized as a lavish vacation. when so many are suffering.

>> if i were president today i wouldn't be looking to go spend ten days on martha 's vineyard.

>> reporter: white house officials continue to insist the office of the presidency travels with mr. obama wherever he goes. and they say he is working hard on a job stimulus plan, which he'll unveil after his vacation. but even members of his own party are calling for more action, particularly in the african-american community, where the unemployment rate is hovering around 16%.

>> it's all right to take your family on vacation. but now you're the father of the country so you've got to look at you care about the citizens of the country, also.

>> reporter: despite the political undertones of this trip, many on martha 's vineyard were just excited to share their vacations with the president.

>> it's so powerful for my kids to have met him. and just to know what it means for them, you know, as kids of color when they grow up in their future, this is a great possibility for them.

>> i was very excited. and when i met him, i --

>> i'm 71 years old. the last time i met i president was eisenhower. so needless to say, meeting this president was a real honor.

>> reporter: now, according to the unofficial white house historian, mark knoller of cbs news reader, this president has actually taken fewer vacation days than some of his predecessors. mr. obama has taken 61 days of vacation. george w. bush had taken 180 at this point in his presidency.

>> kristen welker this morning. thanks.

>>> everyone is entitled to a view days off. critics seem to be having a field day with the president's vacation. is it fair? michael steele is the former chairman of the gop, also an msnbc political analyst . mr. steele, good to see you. thanks for joining us.

>> good to be with you.

>> obviously it's an easy target, the president taking a vacation, at a fairly elite place at a time that the country's got a lot of issues. easy shot. is it a fair shot? and will it last? will this be a lasting issue?

>> no, i don't think it will be a lasting issue. the fairness is in the eyes of the beholder. i think, you know, i appreciates calls by the rnc and others for the president not to go on vacation. he should be here in washington . he should call congress back to washington . but to what end? unless there is a proposal, specific proposal that you're putting on the table that you're calling people back to washington for, that you're staying here in washington to work on, go to -- if martha 's vineyard is where you get your muse, and you can get that jobs bill done, good, go and get it done. because when you do come back in ten days or nine days, the people of this country will expect you to present something with a lot of substance and meat to it that begins to put, as you showed in the video, workers out of those lines, and back to work.

>> and folks that don't have a dog in the political fight i think are all feeling the same frustration. somebody needs to come up with a plan. somebody needs to come up with a proposal. republican candidates obviously find this an easy target. but where are the ideas? are republicans going to be increasingly under pressure to come up with some solid, specific ideas to get us out of this?

>> oh, absolutely, lester. i think there's no way you can get through the next four or five months without some skin in the game. if you're a republican, or a democrat on the hill, if you're a candidate running for the presidency, or the president himself, everyone who has, you know, a pretense to leadership here, has to present to the american people their, not just their vision, but more specific ideas about how we get it done. and the real test, as you know, and is covered rather extensively, is this super committee. is this going to be real substance here? are there going to be real compromises to get to the point where people can actually feel that, okay, the markets can relax and begin to invest again? workers can realize that or begin to see that there are opportunities out there to open up for them. or we're just going to stumble, bumble our way through with, you know, piecemeal, you know, process and results only to fight in another six months the same issues. so there's some real big things looming for folks and everyone's going to have to have some skin in this particular game between now and november.

>> mike, before i let you go, i think we need a reality check in terms of where campaign 2012 is right now. a week ago it was all about michele bachmann . she comes out from the straw vote looking like the perhaps the next front-runner. and then governor perry gets in the act, and suddenly you don't hear michele bachmann 's name anymore. historically when we look back, what do these early, early contests, and early debates really tell us?

>> well, it tells us how folks jockey for position. this is the process, tim pawlenty already leaves the field. there will be more who will do that. i think that there's a lot more opportunity, though, for those who are, you know, at the next tier below, for example, to at least make a policy argument, and to move the debate a particular direction. but, you know, perry had a great week. he had a very solid launch, despite the hiccup in the middle of the week with some statements that he made. he really wasn't talking to washington . he was talking to that conservative base to get them galvanized around his campaign. all in all a good week for him. as we get to the debate that msnbc is going to be hosting in a couple of weeks, there's going to be some real opportunities here for these guys to distinguish themselves, because that's where the focus is going to be, pawlenty is out. bachmann, perry and romney are in. and the rest are trying to catch up.

>> michael steele , good to talk