By Alister Bull and Laura MacInnis
VINEYARD HAVEN, Massachusetts (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will cut short his vacation and head back to the White House on Friday, before Hurricane Irene hits the U.S. East Coast, the White House said.
"In the mind of the president, he felt it was prudent for him to be at the White House this evening," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. Obama had been scheduled to end his nine-day family vacation on Saturday morning.
The president warned earlier on Friday that Irene threatened to be a hurricane of "historic" proportions and urged Americans to obey orders to evacuate from the path of what was likely to be an extremely dangerous storm.
He made no mention of his decision to leave Martha's Vineyard early during those remarks, and the news was announced shortly afterward during a briefing for reporters traveling with him.
Fifty-five million people are potentially in Irene's path, from the Carolinas to Cape Cod on the East Coast, and hundreds of thousands are evacuating coastal communities as cities including New York brace for the powerful storm to hit.
Irene is not projected to scour its way as far north as the Massachusetts coast -- where Martha's Vineyard is located -- until well after the president's original departure time of Saturday morning.
But Obama, who had already been criticized for taking a holiday on this upscale island while U.S. unemployment remains above 9 percent, decided getting back to the White House early was wise.
The president had already been taking great care to appear that he is on top of storm preparation during his holiday.
Obama has held regular conference calls on the storm with aides in a determined effort to learn from the mistakes of his predecessor George W. Bush, who was slammed for an ineffectual response after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans in 2005.
Earnest said the travel plans for the president's wife Michelle and their two daughters was unclear. He had initially said they would stay on Martha's Vineyard until Saturday as planned.
(Reporting by Alister Bull and Laura MacInnis, Editing by Sandra Maler and Philip Barbara)