|‘Presidential’ vs. ‘Political’ Trips: A Blurry Line, and Tricky Math |
Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
President Obama heading to fund-raising events last month in Chicago and Atlanta.
By JACKIE CALMES Published: April 21, 2012
WASHINGTON — Facing 5,000 enthusiastic students at Florida Atlantic University, President Obama rolled up his sleeves and raised his voice to chastise Republicans for their spending cuts and “broken-down theories,” evoking chants of “Four more years!”
The Election 2012 App A one-stop destination for the latest political news — from The Times and other top sources. Plus opinion, polls, campaign data and video.
Download for iPhone Download for Android
Doug Mills/The New York Times Presidential travel in election years has long been an issue.
And that was the nonpolitical stop on Mr. Obama’s swing-state itinerary for that day early this month. The president sandwiched the 34-minute speech, billed as an official address on his so-called Buffett Rule for a minimum tax rate for the wealthiest Americans, amid three overtly partisan fund-raisers that accounted for the bulk of his time along the south Florida coast.
Mixing policy and politics, Mr. Obama is picking up the pace of his travel with that ultimate incumbent’s perk — unlimited use of Air Force One. The trips are mostly to about a dozen swing states that will decide the election and to two reliably Democratic states, New York and California, for campaign money.
And Mr. Obama is not the only frequent flier with a re-election agenda. Both Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the first lady, Michelle Obama, are increasingly stumping around the country as the campaign seeks to repeat its fund-raising success of 2008 and counter a building wave of G.O.P. cash.
The trips yield a payoff not only in donations — collected at small-crowd, big-dollar events in the sumptuous homes of donors and at small-dollar, big-crowd rallies — but also in local headlines trumpeting Mr. Obama’s message of the day. Taken together, they raise the quadrennial question of how much of a president’s travel should be paid for by taxpayers and how much by his party.
“It’s very opaque,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group. “You’re kind of left in the position of, ‘Trust us; we’re doing it right.’ ”
Since Mr. Obama filed for re-election a year ago, he has taken 60 domestic trips, of which 26 included fund-raisers, according to Mark Knoller, a White House correspondent for CBS News who for years has compiled such data.
Mr. Knoller’s count shows that since Mr. Obama took office, his most frequent destinations besides Maryland, Virginia and Illinois, his home state, have been fund-raising centers and swing states: New York (23 visits), Ohio (20), Florida (16), Pennsylvania (15), Michigan (11), California and North Carolina (10 each), Massachusetts (9), Wisconsin (8), Iowa and Nevada (7 each), and Colorado (6).
On Wednesday, Mr. Obama made an official visit to an Ohio community college and a political trip to Michigan for two fund-raisers. This week, he is scheduled to visit North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado for official addresses on student loans at three campuses, prime territory for his drive to motivate young voters.
Officials at the White House, the Chicago campaign headquarters and the Democratic National Committee declined to say how they decide which events are political and how much to reimburse the government. That secrecy has a tradition dating at least to the late 1970s.
Katie Hogan, a campaign spokeswoman, said, “The campaign will follow all rules and pay for the portion of travel that relates to political events, as has been true for previous incumbent presidential candidates.”
A White House spokesman, Eric Schultz, said, “As in other administrations, we follow all rules and regulations to ensure that the D.N.C. or other relevant political committee pays what is required for the president to travel to political events.”
While it is not possible to know for sure, the Democratic Party is probably paying more than other presidents have for Air Force One because of a regulatory change in 2010. Instead of repaying the government based on the cost of first-class commercial airfare, as presidents had since Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald R. Ford, reimbursements must now reflect the cost of chartering a 737 aircraft. (Air Force One, the name for whichever plane in the fleet carries the president, is usually a 747.)
Past presidents have been accused of adding official events to political trips to reduce their campaign’s spending, but Mr. Schultz said that was no longer an issue. “The fact that there is an official event on the schedule doesn’t reduce the travel costs paid by the campaign to the federal government,” he said.
The Democratic Party’s latest monthly report of travel reimbursements, filed last week to the Federal Election Commission, had precise entries like $3.82 for “White House Airlift In-flight services” — a sandwich from the Air Force One galley perhaps? — and 23 payments totaling nearly $100,000 for airfare, including $95,759.10 to White House Airlift Operations and $3,833.19 to the Treasury Department. Aides would not describe what trip, traveler or expense were reflected by each entry.