HONOLULU — An ocean away from Washington worries, President Barack Obama opened his annual Hawaii vacation Saturday on a quiet note — and hoped it would stay that way for the next two weeks.
Every year, Obama and his family prepare to return to his birth state here on the sun-scorched shores of Oahu. And every year — until now — congressional squabbling has forced the Obamas to delay their trip.
This year, Obama was cleared for an on-time departure by Congress, which defied pessimistic expectations last week by passing a bipartisan budget deal, all but ensuring the government won't shut down over the next two years. It was a far cry from presaging a new era of cooperation, to be sure, but a silver lining for Obama a day earlier as he acknowledged a year of frustrating "ups and downs" in an end-of-year news conference.
The president, first lady Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and first dogs Sunny and Bo hopped an overnight flight Friday aboard Air Force One to Honolulu, where they were whisked by motorcade to a beachside home in Kailua, a sleepy suburb with a five-mile stretch of beach popular among windsurfers and tourists.
The next morning Obama, typically an early riser, got a late start, staying at the home until early afternoon, when he headed to the golf course at a nearby Marine Corps base. Joining Obama for the round of golf were Sam Kass, the White House chef; Marvin Nicholson, Obama's trip director; and presidential friend Bobby Titcomb, the White House said.
Obama, in white golf shirt, hat and sunglasses, was all smiles as he drove past reporters accompanying him to the coastal golf course.
The president has no public events scheduled during his vacation, which is expected to last through Jan. 5. In previous years, frequent golf outings have accompanied trips to local restaurants and other island outings.
A few weeks of low-key rest and relaxation would be a welcome change of pace for Obama, who reflected on a high-stakes year of brinkmanship and health care woes as he packed his bags for Hawaii.
"The end of the year is always a good time to reflect and see what can you do better next year," Obama said Friday. "I'm sure that I will have even better ideas after a couple days of sleep and sun."
Last year, Obama had to temporarily abandon his vacation to fly home amid a congressional standoff over the so-called fiscal cliff. The year before, a showdown over payroll tax cuts forced him to delay the start of his Hawaii hiatus. In 2010, it was congressional wrangling over repeal of the ban on gays in the military and other issues that delayed the trip. And in 2009, Senate deliberations over Obama's signature health care law meant that Honolulu had to wait another few days.
Conditions seem ripe this year for a few weeks of interrupted family time. Obama did spend part of Saturday morning conferring with top national security aides about the situation in South Sudan, where U.S. military aircraft evacuating Americans from the violence-plagued African nation came under gunfire and had to divert to Uganda. The White House said four U.S. troops were injured in that incident.
Throughout his vacation Obama will continue to get regular briefings from advisers traveling with him, White House officials said. Obama and his supporters were hoping those routine updates wouldn't interfere with regular rounds of golf and family outings for shave ice, the Hawaii version of a snow cone.
"I don't want any interruptions. He deserves a vacation," Brian Pritchett, an assistant principal visiting from Mount Vernon, N.Y., said as he sipped a rum-infused drink dubbed the "Obama Mama" at a Honolulu hotel. "He puts in too many hours to not have his vacation with his family. I know that's what I would do."