As The Campaign Hits Cruising Altitude, Critics Again Target Presidential Travel | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

As The Campaign Hits Cruising Altitude, Critics Again Target Presidential Travel

Play associated audio

The White House has been fielding questions lately about President Obama's travel — what's official, what's political and whether taxpayers are getting stuck with the bill. It's the same issue that rolls around every time a president runs for re-election.

Take President Obama's trip to Florida earlier this month. It featured an official presidential speech on the economy at Florida Atlantic University. On the same trip, the president hit two fundraisers.

How do you sort that out?

"We go absolutely by the book," White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a press briefing last week.

It costs a massive amount — nobody's ever figured out just how massive — to move the president around.

"As in other administrations, including our immediate predecessors, as you know, we follow all the rules and regulations to ensure that the [Democratic National Committee] or other relevant political committee pays what is required for the president or first lady to travel to political events," Carney said.

Dealing with the same issue in 2004, when President George W. Bush was running for a second term, spokesman Scott McClellan told CNN: "If there are political events, they are paid for out of political funds. Official events — obviously, the president of the United States is president 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

"Presidents of both parties in recent administrations have all declared that they carefully follow the law, that they pay the appropriate share as required by the law. And that's absolutely true," says Brendan Doherty, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy. "True, but the law doesn't require that they pay very much."

Doherty — who says these are his opinions, not the Naval Academy's — has written a new book, The Rise of the President's Permanent Campaign. He analyzed presidential travel patterns going back to Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.

"What I find is that President Obama disproportionately travels to battleground states at about the same rate that George W. Bush did, and that both of them have done so more than their predecessors," Doherty says.

The big-ticket item is Air Force One. Its official price tag — the cost of an hour in the air — has gone from $5,600 in 1982 (for a much smaller plane than today's 747) to $57,000 during the 2004 Bush campaign to $180,000 this year.

That doesn't count the entourage, the second plane — any of that.

Now, Obama's trip to Florida was deemed political, not official, because it had fundraisers on the itinerary.

And for that, there's a formula: The DNC is supposed to reimburse the equivalent of seats on a charter plane for all the political people. Not a chartered 747 the size of Air Force One, but a 737 — not nearly so large.

And where did this formula come from?

Originally from a lawyer in the Carter administration who's now a semi-retired lobbyist: Mike Berman.

He says it was obvious the campaign should be paying something. But at the same time, "the ancillary planes and all those other things that go along with it never were included, because they only have to do with the president being the president."

Politicians like the formula well enough that in 35 years there's been only one real change. Berman had pegged the reimbursements to seats in first class. In 2010, the Federal Election Commission upgraded that to seats on a charter plane.

What does Berman make of the re-election year controversies?

"I make of it that somebody's sitting there figuring out things to complain about — on one side or the other. And gee, this seems like a perfectly good throwaway, and so you pop it."

He says he's reasonably sure that none of this changes any votes.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


'Passages' Author Reflects On Her Own Life Journey

Gail Sheehy is famous for her in-depth profiles of influential people, as well as her 1976 book on common adult life crises. Now she turns her eye inward, in her new memoir Daring: My Passages.

Syrup Induces Pumpkin-Spiced Fever Dreams

Hugh Merwin, an editor at Grub Street, bought a 63-ounce jug of pumpkin spice syrup and put it in just about everything he ate for four days. As he tells NPR's Scott Simon, it did not go well.

Texas Gubernatorial Candidates Go To The Border To Court Voters

Republicans have won every statewide office in Texas for 20 years, but the growing Hispanic population tends to vote Democrat, and the GOP's survival may depend on recruiting Hispanic supporters.

In San Diego, A Bootcamp For Data Junkies

Natasha Balac runs a two-day boot camp out of the San Diego Supercomputer Center for people from all types of industries to learn the tools and algorithms to help them analyze data and spot patterns in their work.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.