President Barack Obama has abruptly ended a round of golf and sped
toward his family's vacation home for what is being described as a
"personal matter." An ambulance was seen speeding toward their compound.
White House aides said the speedy departure and return to the president's home was not a matter of national security or because of a threat to Obama's safety.
Obama was playing golf when reporters who travel with him were quickly assembled for a return to the first family's neighborhood.
Journalists saw an ambulance speed past with its lights on, heading toward the end of Obama's street. The ambulance would have passed through a security checkpoint at the end of the street.
Before he left Washington, White House spokesman Bill Burton told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday that the president wanted to spend his holiday in his birthplace away from the news-of-the-moment distractions that have dominated his first year in office.
No such luck as Obama has been hounded almost non-stop by news of a bomb plot on board a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day.
Then again, this is a refrain that preceded the Obamas' summer vacation on Massachusetts' Martha's Vineyard that saw the renomination of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and the death of Senate lion Edward M. Kennedy.
"I asked the president if he had any special message for you guys," Burton told reporters aboard the presidential aircraft during the nine-hour flight from Andrews Air Force Base near Washington to Hawaii. "He would like for you to relax and to not anticipate any public announcements or news-making events."
Reporters laughed. It was almost the exact phrase Burton uttered on the way to the Obamas' summer vacation; the touch wasn't lost on the deputy press secretary as the entire White House apparatus headed toward Christmas Day on Oahu.
The president, a first-year chief executive who has inherited — and tackled — an economic crisis worse than anything the United States has experienced in decades, doesn't really get vacation amid two wars. Even his departure was delayed because his top advisers wanted him in Washington to witness — or baby-sit, depending on the official — the U.S. Senate pass its piece of a massive government overhaul of health care coverage.
Much in the final legislation remains to be decided, but his top advisers — and the president himself, later — decided it best not to chance an on-time departure to his vacation.
You know, just in case.
"He's been involved throughout this process working with members of the House and the Senate; White House staff has been working with their staffs, and you can imagine we're going to continue to work with those folks as we go forward to ensure that we get this historic health care reform done for the American people," Burton told reporters in what he said he hoped would be the final White House briefing — at 32,000 feet — of the year.
But while Burton suggested there wouldn't be news during the next week or so — the White House won't detail when the president's vacation officially ends — it's clear the White House isn't shutting down. On the flight, top national security officials walked around with their children, and the presidential jet was full, either with military personnel ready to help the commander in chief or with members of the first family with their luggage.
For his part, Obama has urged aides to keep him out of the public eye. He spent last Christmas and New Years on the island awaiting his Inauguration in Windward Oahu at a house that rents for about $4,000 a night. He played basketball at his high school, ate shave (never shaved, as the mainland says) ice, toured a zoo and aquatic park, and spread the ashes of his grandmother, who died just days before his historic election.
Early this Christmas Day, Barack and Michelle Obama — and their motorcade — visited a nearby Marine Corps base for a morning workout. Reporters accompanying the first couple didn't see the fit duo.
Later in the morning, the first couple exchanged gifts with their daughters, the president's half-sister and her family. White House aides said Barack and Michelle Obama did not exchange gifts with each other.
For dinner, the Obamas planned to dine on roast beef, potatoes and other traditional dishes, the White House said.
This year, his sister, brother-in-law and their daughters waited on the tarmac as the Obamas arrived at what is the closest homeland the president knows. His grandmother and mother, both deceased, called this their base while raising him. And first lady Michelle Obama — a South Side of Chicago native whose mother lives with them at the White House but didn't make the trip here — has repeatedly said this is where her husband is from.
Even so, the White House machine doesn't let its chief take a few days to fly kites or body surf. It has the president at the ready to deal with any crisis, foreign or domestic. Red phones are wired, emergency binders are on the shelves. The president is ready to govern, even from a golf course.