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Obama relishing a respite in Hawaii, but reality is never far away

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As President Barack Obama left Washington for his annual year-end beach getaway with his family here, he had one last duty to attend to.

En route to his native Hawaii for Christmas vacation, Obama stopped in San Bernardino, California, for what was originally billed as an hourlong visit with families of the victims of the mass shooting this month. But it stretched late into the night on Friday, as the president and his wife, Michelle, spent nearly three hours in a high school library, privately grieving with loved ones of each of the 14 people slain.

It was a grim note on which to start Obama’s two-week vacation with his wife and two daughters, Malia, 17, and Sasha, 14. But presidential vacations are always an exercise in balancing the spirit of a family break and the serious work of crisis management that never stops entirely, and sometimes intrudes completely, for the commander in chief.

That is particularly true this time, as Obama wraps up a year in which he has accomplished a long list of ambitious agenda items but still faces a public deeply worried about terrorism, and has the sagging approval ratings to prove it.

So even as he settled over the weekend into a secluded rental home in Kailua on Oahu’s eastern shore, and began his near-daily ritual of golf with friends and aides under a clear sky in 80-degree temperatures, Obama’s sense of accomplishment and optimism was tempered by a dose of reality.

“In 2016, I’m going to leave it all out on the field,” the president said on Friday during his year-end news conference, in which he argued that “so much of our steady, persistent work over the years is paying off for the American people in big, tangible ways.”

If the president was in the mood for a victory lap — and a radio address Saturday in which he recited a David Letterman-style top 10 list of his achievements suggested he was — he was also reflecting on the darker side of the year that is drawing to a close.

“As we go into the holiday season, even as we are vigilant about preventing terrorist attacks from happening, even as we insist that we can’t accept the notion of mass shootings in public places and places of work and worship, we have to remind ourselves of the overwhelming good that exists out there,” Obama said after meeting with the loved ones of the San Bernardino shooting victims. “I hope that’s something that gives all Americans a sense of pride and a sense of hope as we go into our celebrations of our faith and our families and our country.”

As eager as Obama was to promote his accomplishments at the end of the year, he also appeared in a hurry to escape the spotlight for a brief time. He began his valedictory news conference on Friday saying the most important thing happening at the White House that day was a screening of the new “Star Wars” movie for families of fallen military personnel. He ended the 52-minute question-and-answer session by saying he was in a rush to get to the viewing. (Officials said the president never did watch the film.)

After his longer-than-planned visit with victims’ families in San Bernardino, Obama arrived at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam here just after 2 a.m. on Saturday, and emerged from Air Force One with his wife and daughters looking ready for a break, having traded his dark business suit and tie for chinos and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up. They were greeted by Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, and his wife, Bruni Bradley, before driving off into the early-morning darkness to the house in Kailua.

Aides said the president was looking forward to a quiet vacation mostly free of the steady stream of announcements and public events that punctuates his life at the White House. And while they noted that Obama’s past holidays had sometimes been disrupted by world events, including the Christmas Day underwear bomber in 2009 and a fiscal crisis in 2012 that required a hastily arranged trip back to Washington, they hoped to avoid such unplanned interruptions this year.

Still, as is the case whenever Obama vacations, he brought elements of the White House along to keep him apprised of threats and developments around the world. In addition to Michelle Obama, Malia, Sasha and the family’s Portuguese water dogs, Bo and Sunny, the president was accompanied by Avril Haines, his deputy national security adviser, and Anita Decker Breckenridge, his deputy chief of staff for operations.

For each of the 16 days he spends here, Obama will receive the presidential daily briefing before hitting the links, the beach or the trails. He ventured out on Sunday with family and friends for a hike at the Makiki Valley Loop Trail, passing his old high school, the Punahou School, on the way.

And even if world events do not interfere, the president has plenty to preoccupy him while he recharges in Hawaii. This is the Obama family’s last Christmas vacation before Malia departs for college. It is also the last one Obama will spend reflecting on what he wants to get done during the next year of his presidency.

“Since taking this office,” Obama said on Friday, “I’ve never been more optimistic about a year ahead than I am right now.”

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