The cost of presidential travel irks some opponents

EVERETT — President Barack Obama spent the better part of the last week rubbing elbows with the Hollywood and tech industry A-list and being serenaded by Grammy winners on an $8 million-plus fundraising tour of the West Coast that helps explain why he is on track to set a record for campaign donations this year.

But as his motorcade shut down several blocks of traffic in one posh Orange County neighborhood, a bystander expressed the resentment that inevitably trails a president on such a purely political mission:

“That’s our money at work,” the woman shouted at the president’s 17-vehicle procession.

And, indeed, Obama’s fundraising success — $29 million in January, the campaign announced Friday — relies heavily on the panoply of presidential perquisites, armored limousines, helicopters, Air Force One.

As presidents and their campaigns are required to do under federal election rules, the Democrats will reimburse the government for part of the cost of Obama’s travel. They’ve handed over more than $1.5 million so far this election cycle.

But although that’s a considerable sum, it’s nowhere near the actual cost of transporting the leader of the U.S. and all the people and equipment that have to move along with him.

A traveling White House entails a huge team of advance workers, vehicles, military and civilian personnel, as well as a vast security network. The presidential plane, a modified Boeing 747, costs at least $57,000 per hour to operate, the amount the Air Force publicly estimated in 1998.

Under federal rules that have been in force for decades, the president’s campaign reimburses the government at a much lower rate — the equivalent of the commercial airfare for himself and any staff who are traveling for fundraising or other nonofficial work, as well as their costs for food and lodging.

Whichever party holds the White House, it’s often hard to tell what rankles the opposition party more: the incalculable value of incumbency or the requirement that they, as taxpayers, foot part of the bill.

“It’s been one nonstop campaign trip after another,” House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, complained this week when he was at work in the Capitol and Obama was headed to the first of four fundraisers of the day.

Obama’s fundraising blitz demonstrated the problems and the perks that come with the office.

After waking up at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Thursday, Obama didn’t have to slog through the snarl of morning traffic in Los Angeles.

Instead, the president was shuttled to a nearby park where several helicopters were waiting for him, his staff and the media that trail him. What could have been a two-hour trip to an Orange County donor’s oceanfront home took just under 40 minutes.

That pace makes these high-maintenance trips worth it. Taking account of the time the president spent at campaign events and en route to them this week, Obama was raising nearly $6,000 per minute.

Obama had eight fundraisers on his schedule before his return home late Friday, with the money divided between his campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The events included an appearance in Los Angeles with the band Foo Fighters and one in San Francisco with singers Chris Connell and Al Green.

Obama supporters note that the other side also plans to raise prodigious sums, including hundreds of millions given to “super PACs” that back GOP candidates. And White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president’s schedulers had compressed as many fundraising events as possible into the trip to minimize the toll on the president’s time.

“The White House abides by all of the rules that govern how campaign costs are picked up by the campaign. And that’s absolutely the case with this trip,” Carney said. “There’s a fairly complex process by which campaign costs are allocated.”

The basic rationale for the allocation rules is that presidents in the modern age have no choice but to live and travel in extreme security. If a campaign had to pay the full cost of any nonofficial travel, presidents would be confined to the White House — or would simply find ways to deem all of their travel “official.”

“We do it absolutely by the book and in the same manner that President (George W.) Bush did and President Clinton did,” Carney said.

Of course, those presidents, too, faced criticism from opponents who aimed to portray them as shirking official duties and wasting tax dollars on campaign-related travel.

Ronald Reagan was the last president to have limited personal involvement in re-election fundraising. Each of the last four presidents has headlined an increasing number of money events, scheduled ever earlier in the presidential term.

George H.W. Bush hosted his first re-election fundraiser a year before Election Day, according to Brendan Doherty, a Naval Academy political scientist who studies presidential campaigns. By contrast, the DNC started paying for Obama’s political travel in April of last year, about 18 months out.

The dollar limits on contributions to candidates — an individual can give $2,500 for the primary campaign and $2,500 for the general election — are small relative to the costs of a campaign, Doherty said. That helps push candidates to spend more and more time fundraising.

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